Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What is Translation, Then?

Onement VI (Barnett Newman, 1953)

On 14th May 2013, this work of art was sold for 44 million dollars. The people of the Internet reacted as expected (see 44 million dollars for a blue canvas with a white line in the middle? Is that art? Why? What is art?

Like art, translation is very hard – if not impossible – to define. Many have tried; many have failed. Most resort to the use of metaphors in order to express the ineffable, as metaphors supply what language itself cannot provide (Dann, 2002: 2).

One of the most famous is the metaphor of translation as a beautiful and unfaithful woman (D’Ablancourt, quoted in Hurtado Albir, 1990: 231), but the world of Translation Studies (and literature) is full of other examples. I would like to quote Nabokov (cited by Bollettieri Bosinelli, 2003: 47), who wrote:

What is translation? On a platter
a poet’s pale and glaring head.
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
and a profanation of the dead.

Scholars have also tried to offer a proper definition, or at least to express the need of a definition or sets of definitions. Many other questions have been proposed in order to be able to answer the main one: ‘what is translation?’

Is translation a matter of...

source and target text?
author and reader?
fidelity and originality?
foreignisation and domestication?

Is a translator a reader or a writer?

There is an evident recurring theme, here. Aren’t these spectra of choices? Two distinct ends and the whole world in the middle. Is translation a matter of choices, then?

I would say yes.

A translator might choose a text to translate in which language. Or might be given a text which has been chosen by somebody else. The translator chooses to translate almost literally or to be creative and make bolder stylistic choices. When it comes to individual ‘translation issues’ (e.g. the translation of names, of neologisms, of metaphors, of culture-bound words...), he or she might choose literal translation over dynamic equivalence or vice versa, or even adapt his or her choices to the individual instances.

In this way, a translated text looks like a finished painting for which the painter has strived to find the perfect combination of materials, tools and colours according to his or her own personal view on art. Should I use watercolours or oil paint? What shade of green should I use to paint this detail? Which size of brush for that section?

Translation is a matter of choices, which vary from the very small detail of choosing a word instead of another, to the definition of translation itself. As a matter of fact, I believe that a translator is entitled and heartily recommended to choose his or her own definition of translation.
After this MA programme in Literary Translation, I have now clearer ideas on what I think translation is for me. I have tried to formulate my own definition of translation, not because the one I had already read and heard were incomplete or not right, but simply because I felt the need to find a definition which could lead to a general approach, which in turn would lead to the individual choices.

For Elena Traina, 24 years old, musician, writer and translator, translation is experiencing and sharing a literary aleph with someone else in another language. Borges explains the fictional concept of aleph as “one of the points in space containing all points” (Borges, 1968: 146). A text, as a literary aleph, places itself in the space of literature, surrounded by the infinite possibilities, the infinite connections between me, Elena Traina, and the text. Literary allusions, echoes and legacies. But this is just my view on translation.

I wonder what Cole Konopka, American writer and translator, would say about it. Or Livvy Hanks, English translator and editor.

I do not think the world of Translation Studies needs a single, unifying definition of what translation is. Looking for my own definition of translation, instead, is a step I am glad I have taken, and that I highly recommend to my peers, for it has opened doors I did not even know were there.

Works cited:

Hurtado Albir, A. (1990). La notion de fidélité en traduction. Paris: Didier Érudition  

Dann, G. M. S. (2002). The Tourist as a Metaphor of the Social World. Wallingford: CABI

Bollettieri Bosinelli, A. M. (2003). “From Translation Issues to Metaphors of Translations”. In James Joyce Quarterly. Vol. 41, No 1/2. Tulsa: University of Tulsa

My name is Elena Traina, I graduated in Lingue e Letterature Straniere at the Università degli Studi di Milano, now I’m studying Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. I translate from English and Spanish into Italian. My main literary interest is children’s literature, but I also like to write and translate poetry and short fiction. I can be reached at

If you are interested in the MA in Literary Translation, or would like to study at UEA, I also recommend that you take a look at my Italian blog:


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