Friday, January 02, 2009

The deceit of formal equivalence

The translation debate continues. There are good arguments for a very exacting formal equivalent translation. Martin (HT John) mentions possible intertextual links, linguistic parallels, or formal features of the original text. He then goes on to cite Venuti who says,
By producing the illusion of transparency, a fluent translation masquerades as true semantic equivalence when it in fact inscribes the foreign text with a partial interpretation, partial to English-language values, reducing if not simply excluding the very difference that translation is called on to convey.1

So, not only can intertextual links, associations and connotations be lost, but the naturalness of an English translation can seduce us into forgetting how foreign the worldview of the text really was.

In the meantime let me remind you of a very simple case where a formal translation has difficulty resolving a problem posed to English by the Greek.

In Greek the words adelphos and adelphe (pronounced atherfos and atherfee in some dialects of modern Greek) mean "brother" and "sister." The plural of adelphos is adelphoi and means either "brothers" or "siblings." It refers to all siblings in a family inclusive of females if they are not otherwise qualified.

Two famous sister-brother pairs were called adelphoi. These are Cleopatra and Ptolemy, and Electra and Orestes. Adelphoi also refers to one's tribal connection or people, or one's peers, in a gender inclusive sense. The Greek did not have an easy way to distinguish between a group who were all brothers and a group made up of brothers and sisters.

The problem is whether a formal equivalent translation is being faithful to the original if it translates adelphoi as "brothers." There really is no easy way to do this. If one wanted to bring attention to the foreigness of the text I suppose that "brethren" might do, but it also has male associations in some contexts. This is just one example of the problem of formal equivalence.

On the other hand, formal equivalence, if used carefully, can introduce the readers to new aspects of the original text. I look forward to Martin's next post on this topic, presenting a third way.

1. Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995) 21.

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