This is my favorite kind of discussion of translation—not a theoretical treatise filled with jargon, but a nuts-and-bolts analysis of particular issues that come up in the course of particular translations. And it’s by the wonderful J.M. Coetzee, so it’s well written as well as meaty. I’ll just quote a couple of tidbits to whet your appetite:

Dialogue comes with its own set of problems, particularly when it is very informal and incorporates regional usages, contemporary fashions and allusions, or slang. My dialogue is rarely of this kind. For the most part its character is formal, even if its rhythms are more abrupt than the rhythms of narrative prose. So hitting the right register ought not to be a problem for the translator.
Where my dialogue is aberrant is when it comes from the mouths of children or of characters for whom English is not a first language. In general, it is best for such speech to be translated not word for word but by speech typical of children in the language translated into (hereafter called the target language), or by the speech of a foreigner making typical foreign slips…

When Professor Curren’s mind wanders to the West’s classical past, should the translator treat these moments as allusions and footnote them? Since such allusions are often glancing and casual, how can he be sure he has picked them all up? Is a passing reference to a photograph of Sophie Schliemann worth a long footnote on Troy, Homer’s Iliad, and the excavation of what he thought was Agamemnon’s tomb by Heinrich Schliemann?
The phrase amor matris [‘love of (one’s) mother/mother’s love’] crosses the professor’s mind. For the benefit of a reader without Latin, the famous ambiguity of the phrase can be explained in a quick footnote; but how does one evoke the atmosphere of rote learning in classrooms going back six centuries in the West?
In Boyhood, the young hero is obsessed with cricket. The ball-throwing machine that he constructs for batting practice in the backyard is easy enough to picture as long as one has an idea of the relation of batsman to bowler in cricket. For the Korean reader, is cricket worth a long elucidatory note, or should the machine be left unexplained as a cultural puzzle?…
Would mastery of the theory of translation make one a better translator? There is a legitimate branch of aesthetics called the theory of literature. But I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation—not one, at any rate, from which practitioners of translation will have much to learn.
Translation seems to me a craft in a way that cabinet-making is a craft. There is no substantial theory of cabinet-making, and no philosophy of cabinet-making except the ideal of being a good cabinet-maker, plus a handful of precepts relating to tools and to types of wood…

There’s a wonderful examination of “the atemporal tendency of the present participle” and the problems it causes in the translation of a passage from Waiting for the Barbarians. If you enjoy such things, you’ll want to read the whole essay. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Is the ambiguity in “amor matris” that of subjective vs. objective genitive (whether the mother is the one loving, or the one being loved)? Because I think the same ambiguity exists in English: one need only Google “love of * for *” and “love of * by *” to see that in English, love can be “of” the love-er or the love-ee. (I think the actual possessive construct — *’s love — is less ambiguous with “love,” specifically, but not with other words: “murder,” for example, as one can see by Googling “his murder of” and “his murder by”.)

  2. Funny that. In the dutch translation of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers guide, cricket was indeed replaced by field hockey.

  3. That’s crazy — the Dutch have a national cricket team that has played in the cricket world cup. Ok, they’re not very good, but…

  4. I liked the article, and agree that, as far as articles on translation go, it’s the only kind that’s of any real interest. Examples! We want examples!
    But I have to say that I was a bit surprised by his line: “But I doubt very much that there is or can be such a thing as a theory of translation…”. Even if he’s pressing the point that only experience and erudition can make a good translator, it’s an oddly uninformed (faux naïf) statement for someone who’s clearly devoted time and thought to the matter.

  5. I suspect he’s simply taking a whack at the theorists, as writers often do. I’m sure he knows of the existence of translation theory.

  6. For that matter, I expect there’s a pretty substantial body of cabinet-making theory…

  7. michale farris says

    Which is probably a lot more lively reading than most translation theory.
    Practical details of specific translations can be really interesting IMHO and IME. Translation theory in the abstract, not really.

  8. Orla Shanaghy says

    I agree with Gail – it’s very surprising that Coetzee would allow himself to appear uninformed about the well-established existence of translation theory, whether intentionally or unintentionally. @languagehat: I think it’s unlikely that Coetzee’s comments on this are intended as a jab at academics/theorists, as the article appears in ‘Meanjin’, which calls itself “Australia’s leading literary magazine”, and will be included in a book published by Oxford Uni. Press (not to mention the fact that Coetzee is himself an academic and has held positions in various universities around the world). Coetzee’s article contains some great insights, but it’s a pity that his experiences with translators, which seem to be very positive, didn’t lead him to present a more balanced picture of both the practical and the theoretical sides of translation.

  9. Translation theory to my mind is very precize science. I would compare it to math.

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