Thinking about Translations

Jennifer Cromwell

What are we doing when we translate ancient texts and who are we doing it for? These questions have been on my mind for a while, and they lie behind a lot of my pieces for Papyrus Stories. Thinking about translation is not anything new. Texts have been translated into other languages since antiquity, and translation of literature today is an important part of the publishing world.
Two passages from very different sources have recently caught my attention that discuss this very point.

Evagrius of Antioch, Prologue to Life of Antony
In the fourth century, the Greek version of the Life of Antony was translated into Latin. The first translation, by an anonymous writer, was very faithful to the Greek, a later translation was produced by Evagrius of Antioch, who wrote the following in his prologue.

“A literal translation made from one language to another conceals the meaning, as rampant grasses suffocate the crops. As long as the text keeps to the cases and turns of phrases, it is forced to move in an indirect way by way of lengthy circumlocutions, and it finds it hard to give a clear account of something which could be expressed succinctly. I have tried to avoid this in translating, as you requested, the blessed Antony, in such a way that nothing should be lacking from the sense although something may be missing from the words. Some people try to capture the syllables and letters, but you must seek the meaning.”

For him, meaning was more important than a pedantic rendering of just words from one language to the next, so that his target audience (western and Latin-speaking) understood what was happening and didn’t struggle over cumbersome Latin constructions.


N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto
Skipping forward 1,600 years, the novel N.P. by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto (1990; English translation by Ann Sherif, 1994) is – on the surface at least – about translating, the struggle to translate a novel from English to Japanese. In one scene, the narrator Kazami Kano (girlfriend of the last person to try to translate the novel) discusses the translation process with her mother, also a translator, who’s the first speaker in the following extract.

“I don’t think you’re really cut out for translation, you know that?”

“Why? Because I’m not accurate enough?”

“How can I describe it? You’re weak, not really weak, but too kind. You think that you have to be faithful to the structure of the original sentences.”

That had been bothering me about my own translations lately, and I thought of quitting.

“That sort of thing is inevitable no matter how hard you try to separate yourself from the text. You’re so sensitive, Kazami, that it’s going to wear you out.”

“So there’s no way around it?”

“That’s my opinion. Shoji wasn’t cut out for that kind of work, either.”

“You have a good memory,” I said. Mother nodded—of course she would remember him.

“Once you get too involved with a text, it’s difficult to let go of it or create it in another language. That’s what I think. Of course, if you don’t like the book to begin with, then you have to suffer through it,” she said with a smile. “I know how Shoji felt, though. I’ve been translating for more than ten years, and sometimes I get very weary. Translating exhausts you in a special way.”

Being too close to the text is difficult, as is wanting to be faithful to the original. You’ll lose yourself in it.
And so, what does this mean when we translate ancient texts today? It’s one thing to edit a text for the first time and discuss all the philological difficulties, publishing the edition in a journal or book that will probably have a limited audience. It’s another thing entirely to write translations that mean something to people reading them as texts, who want to know what the writers mean, what they feel.

It may be a small thing, but one phrase in Coptic always sticks with me. Ari-tagapé or ari-pna literally translate into English as ‘do the love’ (Greek ἀγάπη– brotherly love, charity) and ‘do the mercy’. In Coptic, the expression is common in letters, often written before requests, to soften the force of imperatives. Really, this is the equivalent of English ‘please’ (‘please come and visit …’, ‘please send me …’), and that’s how I always chose to translate it. We don’t translate Spanish por favor as ‘by favour’, so why apply such strict literalism to ancient texts? Would ‘do the love’ mean anything to anybody? Please.

Ultimately, do we want to be slavishly faithful to the original text and miss the cultural translation? If we do, who are we writing for – and, more importantly, who are we excluding by obscuring sense with pedantry?

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about Translations

    1. Thank you! And this is a good point – often people who feel less confident dealing with the language are much more literal, being overly cautious.


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