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The Beauty Contest

14th October 2019

Language service professionals communicate a message in sense and spirit, and they don’t get to pick out the parts they agree with

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty"

This line from Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats has divided opinion almost since the day it was written. Some think it charming and insightful. Others among us find it glib and pointless.  

We know which side of the fence Sachidananda Mohanty is on. The celebrated Indian academic, currently Adjunct Professor at Auro University in Gujurat, has skewered translators who reverently “beautify” a text.

Mohanty argues that in translation, the faithful and the beautiful are simply not compatible. By viewing a text as a classic that needs to be admired and adorned, we do it and our audience an injustice. We fail to tell the truth.

While Mohanty is making a specific point about literary translation, his words will resonate with specialists in other areas.

A linguist I know once told me of a press conference at which she interpreted the speech of a politician for a room full of public officials and journalists. At one point the politician made a comment that the interpreter found ill-considered and foolish, but there was no doubt of his intentions. Putting her own opinions to one side, she did the job she was there to do and conveyed his meaning with pinpoint accuracy.

Language professionals communicate a message in sense and spirit, and they don’t get to pick out the parts they agree with. That’s the truth they convey, plain and simple, and sometimes it’s a long way from beautiful. But how much licence should a literary translator be given? When does the act of refashioning a text for a new audience become too much of a departure from the writer’s intentions? At what point might the translator be writing their own story under someone else’s name?

Literary translators are often given credit for an act of genuine creation in taking an author’s message from one language into another. It’s 106 years since the first publication of Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu. This great work offers us an interesting example of translators being unable to agree even on a correct title. Many English-speaking readers will have been introduced to the book under the title Remembrance of Things Past, but this has been criticised for failing to convey the yearning of Proust’s original words. In recent years it’s been revised to In Search of Lost Time, pleasing many purists. It’s taken us over a century to get this close to the author’s intentions, and there’s still room for disagreement.

If this example makes the job of the linguist sound fiendishly difficult, that’s because it is. An accurate translation, respecting the nuances of different cultures and grounded in truth, will win the respect of professionals who know what they’re talking about. That’s beautiful enough for us.


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