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Traduttore, Traditore!

Most translators are familiar with the expression “traduttore, traditore” meaning “translator, traitor” and have their own personal experiences with the difficulties in translation. We have all seen poor-quality translations, translated text that is virtually unintelligible for a native speaker, translations that misrepresent the original text and blatant mistakes whether in subtitles, song lyrics, or in day-to-day document translations. Translators become the villains in this story–the easy targets when pointing the finger. After all, translation is really about just taking words from one language and finding the equivalent in the target language, right? So how hard can it really be?

Well, for starters, translation is no easy task and involves much more than simply transferring the words into another language. It requires research, thorough understanding of both the original and target languages, cultural knowledge, and specific training on the topic you are translating. And even then, there are still inherent problems with the language itself that lend themselves to numerous interpretations and glaring mistakes. There are just some phrases that are so connected to cultural context that it is next to impossible to provide an equivalent translation of the text that also bears the same meaning.

So, what exactly is the translator’s job when faced with these difficult expressions? Is it better to translate them literally so as not to “betray” the text but at the risk of a lower quality translation, or is it better to find the closest alternative that makes sense in the target language, even though the translated version may slightly modify the idea? Most translators would say that their task is to effectively communicate the same idea so that it makes sense to native speakers, but does that mean we are doomed to constant criticism?

The accusations and criticism aside, translation is an essential and rewarding task. As Goethe puts it, “Say what we may of the inadequacy of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest undertakings in the general concerns of the world.”