Logos Multilingual Portal

27 - Free translation - part one

«[...] ya casi nadie se acuerda, pero le ponían cachalotes moribundos a tiro para hacerle creer que él los pescaba como un Ahab de cabotaje, una vez más pobre Melville»1.

"[...] hardly anyone remembers this now, but they used to set moribund sperm whales free within firing range to make him believe he was bagging them like some tourist Ahab, poor Melville again"2.

We have considered many possible conceptions of (or inabilities to conceive) faithfulness, literality, equivalence in translation. Usually the layman speaking of translation juxtaposes these categories to "freedom": a "free" translation is also "unfaithful", "unliteral" and "unequivalent". Let us examine some points of view on freedom, on captivity and on conditional freedom.

Let us start with a 1532 essay by Juan Luis Vives, De ratione dicendi, in which he mentions translation in these terms: there are three kinds of translations: those in which solus spectatur sensus (only the sense is respected), those in which are respected sola phrasis et dictio (lexical and syntactical form only), and those in which one tries to follow both things and words, et res et verba ponderantur.

The first type is just free translation:

In the translations where just the sense is pursued, there is freedom of interpretation and those omitting what is not useful to the sense and adding what is useful to the sense are pardoned. Figures and patterns of one language are not to be expressed in the other, idiotisms especially, and I don't see the use in admitting a solecism or barbarism to express the meanings of the original in as many words, as done by some with Aristotle or the Scriptures. It will be permitted to express two words with one or one with two or any other number, once one is master of the language and even can add or leave out something (127).

Free translation for Vives five hundred years ago is the one in which there is no close match between prototext word and metatext word. Someone holds that word-for-word, or even letter-for-letter fidelity is the greatest form of infidelity

... the so called precise (literal) translation is never nor can be exact, the servile copying of every word is the most mendacious of all translations (Kornej Chukovskij, Vysokoe iskusstvo,1968: 56


Vives's "free" translation, therefore coincides with someone else's "faithful" translation, and not with its opposite, as one might presume.

One century and a half later, precisely in 1690, although not exactly speaking of interlingual translation in the strict sense, the great English philosopher and re-founder of semiotics John Locke expresses his opinion on the freedom of expression in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Abstract words, that Locke calls "mixed modes", are in his opinion a way for the individual mind to connect objects and concepts that, outside one's mind, in the so called "outer reality" are separate:


the mind in mixed modes arbitrarily unites into complex ideas such as it finds convenient; whilst others that have altogether as much union in nature are left loose, and never combined into one idea, because they have no need of one name.

As long as a natural thing, realia (not meant here in the translational sense), need not be named, its existence goes on freely, without its ever being nominated.

It is evident then that the mind, by its free choice, gives a connexion to a certain number of ideas, which in nature have no more union with one another than others that it leaves out: why else is the part of the weapon the beginning of the wound is made with taken notice of, to make the distinct species called stabbing, and the figure and matter of the weapon left out?

Such a license, such a voluble psychological ability to synthesize outer reality in a way that is convenient for itself but non very "faithful", very "free", is actually a reasonable license, at least reasonable for the person who does it:

I do not say this is done without reason, as we shall see more by and by; but this I say, that it is done by the free choice of the mind, pursuing its own ends;

Mind pursues its own ends, egoistically, not caring if it creates logical connections that are logical for other minds as well. Then again, these abstract concepts, these mixed modes are the basis of human understanding:

and that, therefore, these species of mixed modes are the workmanship of the understanding. And there is nothing more evident than that, for the most part, in the framing of these ideas, the mind searches not its patterns in nature, nor refers the ideas it makes to the real existence of things, but puts such together as may best serve its own purposes, without tying itself to a precise imitation of anything that really exists.

The "translation" of reality into ideas is very free, so much so that it is not bound to an exact imitation of anything really existing. The affair gets more complex when the subject, who freely synthesized reality in his mind, with as much freedom tries to communicate it to someone else.

Words, by long and familiar use, as has been said, come to excite in men certain ideas so constantly and readily, that they are apt to suppose a natural connexion between them.

Every man is accustomed to the "excitation" provoked by words within himself, to the point that he is incited to believe that such an "excitation" is natural and universal. To an individual, such free logical connections are natural, but that doesn't mean that they are so for another subject, who, in his turn, manages his liberty freely:

But that they signify only men's peculiar ideas, and that by a perfect arbitrary imposition, is evident, in that they often fail to excite in others (even that use the same language) the same ideas we take them to be signs of:

The arbitrary synthesizer's frustration manifests itself when, in contact with someone else, he realizes that the same words excite different ideas in the other.

and every man has so inviolable a liberty to make words stand for what ideas he pleases, that no one hath the power to make others have the same ideas in their minds that he has, when they use the same words that he does.

There is no way to excite the same ideas in someone else, Locke says.

Readers who have been following the course from the beginning already understand that Locke is stating the concept of "interpretant sign" or "interpretant", though not using the term, that will be coined two centuries later by Peirce. Form that follows that "free" translation is the only usable one: anything heard, pronounced or otherwise communicated is a free translation of some psychic material into written material, or vice versa. And the freedom with which all that is accomplished by the single man is frustrated only by his desire or need to socialize, to make himself understood, to translate to the outside.

One century later, in Russian pre-Romanticism communication was even presented as privation of liberty, particularly communication in verse. Stating his opinion on poetic translation, the poet Zhukovsky postulates that it is the maximum privation of liberty of one expressing his feelings (referring to meter, rhyme, sound constrictions) realized with the least possible manifestation of such a privation of freedom:

When viewing a statue, a picture and reading a poem, more than anything we are marveled by art's success in giving such agility to marble, in deceiving the eye with colors; and in poetry, despite the obstacles created by meter and rhyme, we can express ourselves with the liberty of normal language: translating a poet into prose, we necessarily deprive the original of all those qualities.

Poetry is therefore the maximum fiction, ostentation of freedom - in translating one's thoughts into words - altogether missing in the real world. In this case, too, free translation is an oxymoron: it is, actually, a constrained translation, a translation in captivity.


Bibliographical references

DERRIDA J., Des tours de Babel (1985), in Nergaard S. (ed.), Teorie contemporanee della traduzione. Textes by Jakobson, Levý, Lotman, Toury, Eco, Nida, Zohar, Holmes, Meschonnic, Paz, Quine, Gadamer, Derrida, Milano, Bompiani, 1995, Isbn 88-452-2470-8, p. 367-418.

FRASSINETI A., Nota del traduttore, in Diderot, D., Il nipote di Rameau, Torino, Einaudi, 1984, ISBN 88-06-05737-5, p. 150-153.

LOCKE J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

SCHOPENHAUER A., Della lingua e delle parole, in Sul mestiere dello scrittore e sullo stile (1851), translation by Eva Amendola Kuhn, Milano, Adelphi, 1993, p. 125-149. ISBN 88-459-1013-X. Original title: Über Sprache und Worte, in Parerga und Paralipomena.

STEINER G., Real Presences (1989), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998, ISBN 0-226-77234-9.

VIVES J. L., Versioni o interpretazioni (1533), edited by Emilio Mattioli, in Testo a fronte, n. 12, Milano, Crocetti, 1995, Isbn 88-7887-00183-0, p. 127-132.

ZHUKOVSKIJ V. M., O perevodah voobshche i v osobennosti o perevodah stihov (1810), in V. A. Zhukovskij-kritik, Moskvà, Sovetskaja Rossija, 1985, p. 81-85.

1 Marías 2000, p. 332.
2 Marías 2001, p. 264.