[Literary Translation] The Concept of Fidelity: Where Do You Stand?


Literary translation is considered one of four categories of the field of translation that is distinguished through the presence of aesthetics and that attempts to authentically represent the stylistic and linguistic approach used by the author of the original work.

At least, that is one way that it can be defined.  For a more official definition of the term, please click on the highlighted link above to read the American Literary Translators Association‘s official definition.

Either way, the work of the literary translator involves conveying to the reader the artistic essence and linguistic truth of the original work.  Such a task is a hefty one that can present many challenges to the translator, especially when there are profound linguistic and cultural differences.

Russian-born American writer Vladimir Nabokov identified three main mistakes that might be found in literary translations.

  • The first mistake was that of the literary translator misunderstanding the source text and thus rendering misinterpretation in the translation.
  • The second mistake was intentional censorship by the translator,whether due to lack of understanding and thus difficulties in translating, or making the decision that the information was inappropriate for readers.
  • The third was the distortion of information from the source text so that the translation would fit in with the cultural beliefs of the readers of the translation.

With these possible mistakes in mind, is it actually possible for the literary translator to produce authentic translations?  How can the translator maintain fidelity? Must it be an exact word-for-word experience?  Even so, would such a direct translation make sense?

There is the idea that fidelity and linguistic aesthetics are two unjoinable elements in the work of literary translation; that somehow faithfulness and beauty cannot go hand-in-hand in a translated text.

If you’ve tried your hand at translation before, what are your answers to the following questions:

  • Were you able to achieve an aesthetically pleasing direct translation?
  • Or did you find yourself choosing one over the other more often than not?
  • Do you believe that you were able to fully avoid misinterpretation?
  • Did you find yourself avoiding translating some aspect of the text?
  • Or did you actually distort the translation because of cultural beliefs?

Where do you stand on the matter of fidelity in literary translation?


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