Tying translators in knots

I came across a splendid 17th century definition of translation from one Leonard Digges in the preface to a translation from the Spanish (G. de Cespedes, Gerardo, the unfortunate Spaniard (1622)): “Translations are, in respect of their originals, like the knottie wrong-side of Arrass-hangings, in which the fair outside could nill be seene without helpe of the knots within.” To modernize, translations are like the backs of wall-hangings (or carpets), where you see the knots that ensure the smoothness of the visible surface. 

Literary translation, of course, has always celebrated this belles infidèles, traduttore traditore, ‘lost in translation’ dimension of the noble art, mainly because both original and copy co-exist, prompting an endless round of inspection and commentary, and a constant realization that semantic paradise has indeed been lost. Commercial translation, whatever its form, has a far more complex relationship with the ‘original’, which may no longer exist as such by the time the translation enters circulation. Certainly there is a vast swathe of multilingual websites, magazines, product labels, brochures, instructions and directions produced all over the place, but most people read these rapidly in the language they know best. Only other translators tend to inspect them for the ‘knots within’…

In fact translators in many contexts today (international organizations, for example) often produce a much more ‘fair outside’ than the original, especially when material is authored quickly in a second language. Rather than playing the guilty linguistic smuggler, they actually end up as language gendarmes, making sure that meanings circulate freely and clearly in the language of the tribe.


Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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