The Program

The Translator is a Betrayer

Translation of Euclid's Elements at St. John's College, Santa Fe
One of the most complete fragments from Euclid’s Elements. Now what’s that Greek saying?

By A.J. Peters

One of my favorite parts about language class at St. John’s is that it is a study of language, not just a study of a language. Instead of practicing a language purely for simple conversation, we really look at how language works: what does it mean when I say this? What is the best way to convey a similar meaning another way? Or in another language? When I consider language this way, linguistic terms aren’t so scary any more. Identifying the past subjunctive in English for an accurate translation from French isn’t about being a grammatical perfectionist, it’s about making sure the reader of the translation grasps the same sentiment to the same degree as the reader of the original. Of course, “same” is a bit of wishful thinking; translations will never preserve perfectly, and therein lies the challenge. From this impossibility comes the Italian adage traduttore, traditore: translator, traitor.

This is a great little article from The New York Times about what to look for in a modern translation, but for Johnnies, it’s a reminder about how to translate. Humorously, the first writer translates traduttore traditore as “the translator is a betrayer”. So all of you who speak Italian out there, let me know which one of comes closer to the truth.

Tone. Tone is everything. A novel in which characters say “I daresay” is galaxies apart from one in which characters say “I kinda think.” Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon” is notorious for its elaborate diction and inscrutable syntax — a murky Greek that nicely suggests the moral and political murkiness that is the play’s subject. When David R. Slavitt chose to pepper his 1997 translation of this titanic masterpiece with phrases like “learning curve,” “stress-related” and “Watch what you say, mister,” he was not only cheapening the diction but hamstringing the play’s larger meanings. Clytemnestra is not Joan Crawford.

Read the rest here.

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