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Some Images and Analogies about Translation

A piece attempting to explain what translators do
in terms of well-known devices and processes.
Published in Volume V of the ATA Scholarly
Series, 1991.

Over several decades I have sometimes reflected that writings about the theory of translation can be too theoretical. By which, I probably mean I have found them too wordy, too complex, too unreadable for my taste. Others may choose to differ, but it has always seemed to me that writing about language or linguistics or translation ought by its very nature to qualify as an absolute model of good and clear writing. If this is not the case, then what after all is our work about? And so, over these same decades, I have also sought out every clear and concrete image or analogy I thought might possibly help me to explain what translation is to those in other language-related fields, to those teaching or learning translation, and to those totally outside the profession.

The result has been a collection of my own notions which, if they do not perfectly explain what translation is and does, at least may point in the right direction. They range from simple comparisons with rather homespun processes to a fairly detailed comparison with a major art form and finally an exotic assertion that translation may not exist at all except as an illusion. Here are some of these notions, more or less in the order I acquired them and more or less in the order of their complexity. Where possible or appropriate, I have suggested some empirical steps for verifying the validity of these ideas.

SIMPLE IMAGES: Meshes, Grids and Gauges

I started with the somewhat far-fetched idea of the translator as a fisherman casting a net. Depending on the mesh of this net, both the size and shape of its openings, which I hoped might resemble the resolving power of the translator's mind and his experience with language, s/he would either successfully "land" the fish in that stretch of water or would fail to catch those very same fish, which would then swim safely away, just as the true meaning of a phrase can sometimes elude the unwary translator.

This idea began to expand in my mind until it became an entire fishing fleet casting giant nets across a broad expanse of ocean for days on end until all the crewmen imagined they had fished that whole area out. Then, lo and behold, another fishing fleet hove to, threw out differently meshed nets, and captured an equal number of lively semantic fish, quite different in size and shape. The comparison between the work of the merely mechanical translator who works by rote and a more accomplished colleague who attempts to reproduce the true form of the original need not be belabored. For those who might prefer less blood-thirsty pursuits, a version of the analogy that used fruit-sorting machinery, once again differentiating between both size and shape, also crossed my mind.

My next foray into image-capturing led me to wonder if there could be other mechanical devices which on one level or another emulated translation tasks and problems. Almost immediately a rather close analogy hit me, one that even reproduces the potential for international misunderstanding translators seek to resolve, namely the differences in gauging and tooling which divide American auto mechanics from their European colleagues. Due to arguments over metric and US measurements, there is really no way precise dimensions in one system can be replicated in the other, surely a close mirror of what happens with translation. I also began to wonder how one might "translate" technical processes from the year 1900, based on their technology, into modern technological terms, something like what translators of nearly any procedure from an older era are regularly called upon to do, whether or not the material is explicitly technical.

Time measuring devices also caught my eye, and for a while I imagined I had embarked on a journey into science fiction as I tried to speculate on how one might "translate" time on Mars or on the planet of some distant star into "plain old" Earth time. Then I realized this line of inquiry might not be fictional at all—until quite recently, the most common Chinese measure of moderate duration was not the week but the "chu," an Ur-decimal period lasting ten days. It is hard enough for scholars to match the dates for Chinese years with western ones, since the Chinese almost invariably refer to an event by the year of a certain Emperor's reign, and their lunar calendar usually begins in February. But translating the significance of the "chu" into a Westerner's sense of time boggles the imagination. Since translators can't help being curious about matters that bother few others, I also found myself going the other way and wondering how one might translate such film titles as Saturday Night Fever, Sunday, Bloody Sunday, or Thursday's Child into classical chu-conscious Chinese.

Devices for measuring the weather next attracted me, and I quickly recalled that we Westerners already have at least three different standards by which to measure temperature. Although we have all learned (and just as frequently forgotten) the five-ninths and nine-fifths plus-or-minus 32 formula for going between Centigrade and Fahrenheit, not all conversions among these scales are equally easy, and errors of the type translators might recognize can occur easily enough. But as someone born into a family of map publishers, I had now moved on to what at that time seemed my richest and most natural image. Long ago during his semanticist days, S.I. Hayakawa had warned his followers, as had Ogden and Richards before him, "not to confuse the map with the terrain."1 This view held that language should be seen essentially as a map, continually to be verified by looking at the actual landscape about us. But what did this mean for us as translators, in some ways almost doomed to look only at the map and recreate it as another map?

I was naturally also seized by the realization that all purportedly three-dimensional maps of the world are necessarily a lie, based upon this or that two-dimensional projection system ensuring greater or lesser distortion of various parts of the planet. Only a slightly flattened globe can present the earth close to its actual shape, but even a globe has the defect that no one can look at it all at once, as one side will be hidden. Even if one stoops to the dodge of a mirror, land-forms and lettering will be reversed, but even if this were solved, there would still be problems of cognitive vision and view-merging inside the brain.

The richness of these images captured me for some time, and I recall reflecting that the translator too must look at the terrain as well as the map if he is to provide a truly accurate translation, though often his first professional duty may require him to replicate the map, regardless of the shape of the terrain. To do otherwise would be to set himself up as a critic and adversary of the text before him, as someone who knew better than the original author. In the long run this would never do, and he would quickly gain a reputation, regardless of his loyalty to what he considered the truth, for producing inaccurate translations Translators are nonetheless placed frequently in such "double-bind" situations, where they must choose between loyalty to the original and loyalty to reality and/or the reader's common sense. There are no iron-clad rules in such cases, and each translator must improvise appropriate case-by-case solutions.

Further levels of richness and potential confusion were added when I reflected that a translation might not even be analogous to a map but rather to the combined set of grid markings on a map. From this viewpoint, it is the original author who provides the map, his or her version of the terrain with its own special grid marks. It is the translator's task to replicate this map as best as possible using what would almost inevitably turn out to be other grid marks, based on a different standard of grid-setting.

Puzzles, Construction Toys, and Animal Anatomy

Although I am perhaps assigning a logical sequence to my thought progression which it never possessed, it would have been an easy step for me to have moved from maps with their grids to picture puzzles of maps and their grids, if only because jigsaw puzzles showing maps have long been with us. But as soon as I thought of translation in terms of jigsaw puzzles, I realized the map image was no longer really necessary. It is perfectly possible to envision the view of life enjoyed by a particular age or culture as a single picture of a specific size, shape and subject matter, cut up into puzzle pieces with a specific style of jig-cutting.

Thus, one can imagine one such picture for French culture, another for the Spanish world view, a third for the Chinese, still others for Japan, Mexico, Britain, the US, etc., etc. But each of these pictures of life will be slightly different, mirroring different views of what is felt to be important by different peoples. Some may well emphasize aspects that others minimize or ignore. The pictures may even differ slightly in size or shape. And the style of jig-cutting—here let's think of grammar, syntax and the like—may be astoundingly different. If you come from a culture where the jig-cutting is similar, it will be relatively easy to adjust to a new language and culture. If not, the amount of work may be prodigious, like suddenly being called upon to assemble a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces have multiple straight edges or subtle sinuous curves. And here already the reader will have spied my analogy, that when one is asked to translate a sequence of words from one puzzle to another, it is essentially like dealing with subsets of the two cultures, with all the difficulties this may entail. It is like being asked to transpose the shapes cut in one style into shapes cut quite differently. If the strictest technical standards are to be applied, it is an impossible task. It simply cannot be done without permitting some "give" in the requirements.

I think my next notion may have arisen earlier, but I would like to assume I was logical and now moved from two-dimensional models to three-dimensional ones. Regardless of the order, my next analogy is construction toys—at some point it occurred to me that translating from one language to another was like being given a structure—say a Ferris wheel, a parachute jump, or whatever—built with an erector set and being asked to recreate it using a Lego set. Or, worse, a tinker toy. Or vice versa in whatever order. The reader is free to substitute all existing or imaginable construction toys. Here too it's important to realize that the Ferris wheel or whatever was not a real Ferris wheel but a toy replica of one—thus, the translator was being asked to create a replica of a replica, using a quite different medium.

This construction toy image has the advantage, aside from being familiar to many people, of showing the folly of some would-be critics of translation. Once one has finished the Lego set replica of the erector set original, it takes no particular wit to point out that the plastic copy lacks the "vibrancy," "strength," and "purity" of the metal original. Someone who did not know which came first might also castigate the metal for lacking the plastic's "softness," "flexibility" and "color." Anyone can see that the two versions are as different as can be, but almost none of this difference—barring acts of sheer incompetence—can be the actual work of the "translator." Almost all of it can be assigned to the differences between the two media.

It is relevant here to note that there exists an entire school of translation criticism, which translators have come to refer to as the "Professor Horrendo" approach2. Professor Horrendo never catches on that what he is observing is the effect of different media, not "mistakes" in translation, and he rattles on forever about how inadequate the plastic is to represent the metal or vice versa. Horrendo also never ceases to congratulate himself that such insights prove how much he knows about language and translation, and his work may be found anywhere from literary sections of newspapers to major scholarly journals.

It may begin to be possible to believe that Americans have truly learned something about foreign languages when Prof. Horrendo comes to the end of his reign. Several decades ago the French held workshops where skilled French and English authors translated and retranslated each other's work back and forth many times between the two languages3. The difference between "original" and "translation" in these circumstances soon became truly academic. Perhaps all consenting Professor Horrendos should in the meantime be invited to repeat performances of these workshops to see whether they can really detect such differences.

My next example comes from the domain of animal anatomy and was once published as a small part of an article on the difficulties of translating Chinese medical texts into English. It relates to a real episode in my life when my wife and I were living in Italy. At that time she did most of the shopping to help her learn Italian, and she repeatedly came home complaining that she couldn't find certain cuts of meat at the butchers4. I told her that if she concentrated on speaking better Italian, she would certainly find them. But she still couldn't locate the cuts of meat she wanted. Finally, I was forced to abandon my male presumption of bella figura and go with her to the market place, where I patiently explained in Italian what it was we were looking for to a succession of butchers. But even together we were still unsuccessful. What we wanted actually turned out not to exist. The Italians cut their meat differently than we do. There are not only different names for the cuts but actually different cuts as well. The whole system is built around it—they feed and breed their cattle differently so as to produce these cuts. So one might argue that the Italian steer itself is different—technically and anatomically, it might just qualify as a different subspecies.

This notion of "cutting the animal differently"—or of "slicing reality differently"—can turn out to be a factor in many translation problems. It is altogether possible for whole sets of distinctions, indeed whole ranges of psychological or even tangible realities—to vanish when going from one language to another. Those which do not vanish may still be mangled beyond recognition. It is this factor which poses one of the greatest challenges even for experienced translators. It may also may place an insurmountable stumbling block in the path of computer translation projects, which are based on the assumption that simple conversions of obvious meanings between languages are readily possible.

Just as the idea the earth might be round went against all common sense for the contemporaries of Columbus, so the notion that whole ranges of knowledge may be inexpressible as one moves from one language to another seems equally outrageous to many today. Such a notion that Language A cannot easily replicate what is said in Language B simply goes against what many regard as "common sense." Something like this question lies at the root of the long-continuing and never fully resolved debate among linguists concerning the so-called Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.

And yet the truth of such a notion is irrevocably and demonstrably true in the very face of all reluctance to believe it can be. In the case of Chinese medicine, for instance, the difference involved could not possibly be more striking. The relationships concerning illness the Chinese observe and measure are not the ones we observe, the measurements and benchmarks are not the same as ours, their interpretation of such benchmarks are quite different from ours, the diagnosis these suggest is not the same, and the treatment and interpretation of a patient's progress can also radically diverge from our own. Yet the whole process is perfectly logical and consistent in its own terms. No one knows how many such instances of large and small discontinuities between languages and their meanings may exist, even among more closely related tongues like French and English, and no one can judge how great an effect such discontinuities may have on larger relationships between the two societies or even on ordinary conversations between their all too human representatives.

ADVANCED ANALOGIES: Music and Stage Illusion

My next insight, analogy, claim—call it what you will—is far more ambitious and also considerably more argumentative. It places translators on a lofty, elevated plane, side by side with practitioners of one of the highest art forms. Those who are repelled by the arrogance of such an assertion will be pleased to learn that translators will be restored to their humble lot in my final analogy. The present one, however, starts off tranquilly enough with a calm and commonplace statement that the primary professionals of music are composers, performers and those musicians who improvise. It continues somewhat Socratically by pointing out that the primary professionals in literature are writers, novelists, and poets. Similar reasoning is then extended to the fields of dance, theatre and film, whose primary professionals are identified as dancers, playwrights, and film-makers. It is also acknowledged that all these fields have secondary and tertiary professionals: teachers, critics, historians, theoreticians, and those who promote various forms of "appreciation."

But who, the analogy continues, can possibly be the primary professionals in the field of foreign languages? At this point I raise the stakes somewhat by suggesting that these primary foreign language professionals are none other than translators and interpreters. In a very real sense, I assert, translating is advanced language learning, the art form connected with foreign languages. Yet virtually our entire language learning apparatus is in the hands of what in other fields would be considered secondary and tertiary specialists, the critics, the annotators, the historians, the appreciators, and of course foreign language teachers on an elementary level. If this comparison turned out to be even partially apt, then it would represent a significant anomaly deserving some real attention.

But what of the obvious objection likely to be directed at such a claim? It is not hard to overhear: how can anyone possibly compare translators with musicians? After all, everyone knows that musicians, painters, writers, dancers are true artists. They do creative work, while translators, as is well known, are merely copiers, putterers, and hacks.

But it is this anticipated response, both in its content and its passion, which truly proves the validity of my argument, I would hold. In a sense anyone who voices this response proves thereby that s/he has no deep knowledge/experience of translation. No one who has truly translated or even truly communicated in a single language can deny the real element of art involved in the act of translation.

This is why I believe that translators can be best compared to musicians5, in their three stated varieties: composers, performers, and improvisors (and, as we shall see, even a fourth kind as well). Translators and interpreters can be called upon to play not just one of these roles but all three in their work, even while translating a single document (some would say even in a single sentence).

Most outsiders to the profession can at present only imagine the translator as a musician in the role of percussionist, someone who has to keep to a rather strict rhythm & is only noticed when s/he fails. And a great deal of translation can indeed resemble this, but the beat is far more subtle than many can hear, and at any moment the translator may need to alter this beat, play another instrument altogether, launch into a prolonged improvisation, or even recompose a large part of a piece from scratch. In the case of texts from ancient eras or divergent cultures, the translator may even be called upon to play a fourth role, that of historical restorer, of musical archeologist. Translation is a far more demanding profession than many are capable of envisioning, which of course determines many of the profession's problems and challenges.

Just in case we have accorded translators too much honor, my final analogy, though in a sense even more ambitious, will now pluck them from the heights where we have placed them and hurl them down into an abyss of delusion and sheer nothingness, or at least bring them closer to the humility and anonymity they are largely accustomed to.

In this close to final section we will present an extremely cogent case that all of translation is ultimately a stage illusion, a conjuror's trick, a shared mass hallucination without any true basis in acceptable reality at all. It is held together, and just barely at that, by the Will To Believe of the Duped. For all practical purposes translation simply does not exist. The seeming reality of its existence is sustained by four totally deceptive elements.

The first of these is the conjuror himself, namely the translator, who is responsible for the outward form of the deception. But he is merely one individual, who happens to stand on the stage and is hence the most obvious of the conspirators. The stage props, without which the translator-conjuror is close to powerless, are provided by the dictionaries and other source books in the field together with the linguistic theories justifying the feasibility of translation to begin with.

The proscenium arch, along with the entire theatrical architecture underlying the conjuror's tricks, can readily be likened to the totality of shared cultural history between the two peoples and cultures being subjected to such alleged acts of translation. And the audience for this stage illusion, those desperately ready and willing to witness the fulfillment of this fraudulent wonder, are none other than those (often ourselves) already convinced that such a miracle can and must take place, those who share a specialized interest in the subject being "translated" and are prepared to swear to the success of the conjuring trick even when it has—by any objective standards—failed.

The proofs that this outwardly heretical view of translation is in fact both accurate and ultimately correct are not hard to come by. There are at least four of them. For the truth of the matter is this, that if any of the four preceding elements I have named is either absent or substandard in any way, the illusion fails to take place at all or is far less effective. To spell this out in detail, if any of these four factors is missing or poorly handled, for instance:

1) If an incompetent—read amateur, inexperienced, overworked, etc.—translator (conjuror/magician) is involved.....

2) If the dictionaries and source books (stage props) are inadequate or missing.....

3) If the shared cultural history between the two peoples (the proscenium arch and/or theatre architecture) is slight or not of long duration (as is the case, say, between the US & most Asian peoples).....

4) If the audience has little or no previous shared experience in the process of translation between the two languages/systems of beliefs.....

In all of these cases the act of translation and/or the conjuror's trick, stage illusion, mass hallucination, etc., will simply fail to take place or will be demonstrably less effective, so unsuccessful in fact that people will not understand what is happening and leave the theatre in droves. Or perhaps worse, if the trick is just barely effective enough to succeed, people may leave the theatre imagining they have seen a clever performance, when in fact they have not.

I do not think we need extend this analogy any further. As outlandish as it may sound at first hearing, we all know of instances where either the conjuror or his props, the theatre layout or the audience itself have been less than less than adequate, so that the performance came close to being a total flop. What further proof do we need that we are dealing with a trick than when the trick fails to work? By all of these proofs, we have demonstrated what until now was apparently unprovable, that translation does not really exist.

The philosopher David Hume insisted that "the identity which we ascribe to the mind of man is only a fictitious one" and reportedly enjoyed believing that one morning the sun might fail to rise. But nonetheless even David Hume was obliged to get up and eat his breakfast each morning. And so we too as translators, despite my claims that our field may not exist, must also arise each day, eat our morning meal, and get to work. I hope these images and analogies can help us to explain our work a bit better to ourselves and to others. If so, then I have succeeded in explaining a difficult subject in somewhat more accessible language than is sometimes used, which is of course at least one part of what translation is all about.


1. S.I. Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action, pp. 30-32, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962, (and in various previous editions as Language in Action). His actual terms were "language" and "territory;" a similar idea, using different terminology, radiates through the works of his semanticist predecessors The Meaning of Meaning by C.K. Ogden & I.A. Richards (1923) and an extremely influential cult book among intellectuals in its time, Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski (International Non-Aristotelian Library, 1933). A close colleague further reminds me that in this image the map-maker is in fact a part of the map and also a part of the reality being mapped, thus according both writers and translators a certain degree of responsibility for the shape of either.

2. Gregory Rabassa assigns the beginnings of Professor Horrendo to Sarah Blackburn, an editor at Pantheon Books, and enlarges as follows: "...what I really mean is what Alastair Reid calls `The Translation Police,' who go after the details, missing the forest for the trees, looking for wounds they can stick their fingers into. Such people often don't have an adequate knowledge of the original language or are excessively pedantic, so their critiques are really a waste of space." (An interview published in Language Monthly, September, 1984, pp. 16-18.)

3. Such a workshop is described in La Parisienne (avril 1953, pp. 498-507) and summarized in Vinay & Darbelnet: Stylistique Comparee du Francais et de l'Anglais, pp. 195-97, Paris, Didier, 1963

4. This paragraph appeared in a different form in The Challenge of Translating Chinese Medicine, a discussion between Sandra Celt and the author, Language Monthly, April, 1987..

5. A different version of the "music analogy" was presented as a brief section of an ATA panel session, Washington, 1989.


Gross, Alex: The Challenge of Translating Chinese Medicine, Language Monthly, April, 1987.

Hayakawa, S.I.: Language in Thought and Action, New York, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962 (Entitled Language in Action in previous editions.)

Korzybski, Alfred: Science and Sanity, Lakeville, Conn.: International Non-Aristotelian Library, 1933.

Ogden, C.K. and Richards, I.A: The Meaning of Meaning, New York, Harcourt and Brace, 1923.

Vinay, Jean-Paul and Darbelnay, Jean: Stylistique Comparee du Francais et de l'Anglais, Paris, Didier, 1963, pp, 195-97.

This paper is Copyright © 1991
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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