A Book on Literary Translation

For those of you who may have missed it, there is a new book on translation out.

Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos

It was reviewed in the NY Times Sunday Book Review last week. Find the review here.

In brief, Bellos, himself a well-regarded translator of literature, attempts to re-frame the translation argument, and ends up with something in the spirit of dynamic equivalence, but one which is at the same time both more constrained and more free. His approach includes translating style, even if it entails referential inaccuracies, since the style is part of the message. (Yes, Virginia, sometimes the medium is the message.) Or it allows for displacing information, if that’s what it takes.

Bible translators, especially those of us who are interested in the questions of style and literary translation, should take careful note.

(For those of you not up on the popular culture of the ’70’s and ’80’s, the allusion is to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

8 thoughts on “A Book on Literary Translation


    Many thanks, Rich, for pointing out the captivating review of this book on literary translation by a literary translator. I must now get the book itself. Interesting in the review is that the writer appears to accept the oft maligned notion of “equivalence”, e.g., “In a translation, as any art form, the search is for an equivalent sign.” He indirectly defines this notion as a search for relevant similarity (-ies) with reference to the original text that happen to be “acceptable” to a particular audience in a given setting of use. These concepts sound vaguely familiar. In any case, I learned some time ago that professional secular translators can often teach Bible translators quite a bit. One of the earliest examples that I happened to run across was Clifford E. Landers, a professor of political science, in “Literary Translation: A Practical Guide” (Clevedon, ENG: Multilingual Matters, 2001). I can also recommend that book to those interested in the subject.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Ernst and Rich,

    I’m quite sure that Adam Thirwell, reviewing David Bellos’ book, is hardly reducing it to just another work (like Clifford Landers’ is) “on literary translation,” even if it’s “by a literary translator.”

    Bellos is as much a translation theorist and language theorist and professor of theories and of practices (plural) as he is a practitioner in some narrow (literary and only literary) sense. One reason Thirwell has to exclaim that Bellos’ book gets to “The Joyful Side of Translation” is because the author’s expansive look at translation is so, well, rich and full and fun. There’s wordplay in Bellos’ title (which Rich Rhodes almost gives away) and wordplay in his subtitle (“Translation and the Meaning of Everything,” which I give away in a blogged review of the book).

    Rich, you offer that “Bible translators, especially those of us who are interested in the questions of style and literary translation, should take careful note.” But I would add this warning or recommendation: even if you’re interested in Bible translation without style or without any acknowledgement of the literary whatsoever, you, the Bible translator should be interested in the Bellos book. He looks at Nabokov, yes. And he looks, very very carefully at missionary Bible translation, at Nida, for example.

    Bellos always resists insisting, by translation, on “Better Bibles.” Rather he wants his readers to consider and to enjoy the work of serious translation, the challenges of it, the wordplay in it. Translation is many things, as Bellos makes very very clear. In some ways he reminds me of the much forgotten Kenneth Pike, who insisted on the N-dimensionality of language and, especially when talking about translation, loved to paraphrase Nelson Goodman: “What we need is radical relativism within rigid restraints.”

    One of the most important sentences from Thirwell’s review is this one where he quotes Bellos:

    So a translation can’t be right or wrong “in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils.”

    For BBB readers considering the book and wanting yet another review, here’s mine (and find there a comment by David Bellos on a couple of things I’ve noted):


  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    You know…I don’t think we’ll ever really get this whole literary translation thing perfectly right until we get to End Of The Universe.

    See you all at the restaurant. Bring your towel.


  4. Ernst Wendland says:

    J.K. Gayle wrote:
    One of the most important sentences from Thirwell’s review is this one where he quotes Bellos:
    So a translation can’t be right or wrong “in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils.”

    This is indeed an important statement about translation, including Bible translations. On the other hand, as in the case of art where beauty often lies in the eyes of the beholder, translators must also keep the eyes of their beholders (readers, hearers) in view. Thus, the preceding observation from Bellos needs to be taken together with another a sentence earlier:
    “Translation, Bellos proposes in a dryly explosive statement, rather than providing a substitute instead ‘provides for some community an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue.’ What makes a match acceptable will vary according to that community’s idea of what aspects of an utterance need to be matched by its translation.”
    Thus, determining what constitutes “acceptability” for a given target group is a crucial ongoing exercise, and its ultimate outcome in the case of a particular version cannot always be predicted with certainty.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:


    Thanks for reading as if to find for balance or nuance in what Thirwell says about Bellos’ statements. Let me say again that Bellos really is more Pike-like, more dimensioned, more open than he is closed in his views of both language and of translation. Where Bellos draws the line (closes down views about translation) seems to be against notions of “equivalence.” His also doesn’t like “identity” (which in my view is anti-platonic in a very refreshing way). Likewise, he refuses “analogy” as some picture of what translation is or does.

    Instead, he uses our English word “match.” I’ve put some salient quotations below, including the one that Thirwell gives (that I reproduced in my comment, the one you were trying to balance). I’ve included that one in fuller context, to try to show a bit more in Bellos’ own words what he intends by “match.” (He noted to me in a comment at my blog review of his that in January his French translation of his book will come out. I wonder what he’s going to do with “match” in French?! We’ll see whether he can make a game, a French match, of it.)

    Without further ado. Here’s Bellos in his own words (my emphasis):

    Translators are matchmakers of a particular kind. It’s not as simple as the marriage of content and form. Just as when we match faces and portraits, we rely on multiple dimensions and qualities to judge when a translation has occurred…. Not all of them are great at their job, and not many have the time and leisure to wait for the best match to come. But when we say that a translation is an acceptable one, what we name is an overall relationship between source and target that is neither identity, nor equivalence, nor analogy—just that complex thing called a good match.

    A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek, or miss out the gray hairs in the sideburns—and still give us a good likeness. It’s hard to say just what it is that allows viewers to agree that a portrait captures the important things—the overall shape as well as that special look in the eye.

    The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good. But the users of a translation, unlike the friends of a portraitist’s sitter, don’t have full access to the model (they would barely need the translation if they did). That’s probably why translation raises such passionate responses. There’s no choice but to trust the translator.

    What counts as a satisfactory match is a judgment call, and is never fixed. The only certainty is that a match cannot be the same as the thing that it matches. If you want the same thing, that’s quite all right. You can read the original.

    What translators do is find matches, not equivalences, for the units of which a work is made, in the hope and expectation that their sum will produce a new work that can serve overall as a substitute for the source.

    Of course there’s never a match that is 100 percent, because that’s not the way of the world. Just as it would be silly to claim that high-quality tailoring is “mathematically impossible” [as Nabokov claims translation is] because we’ve never had a suit that was an absolutely perfect fit, it would be unwise to deny the possibility of translating form just because we’ve not yet done so in a way that is utterly impeccable in every respect.

  6. J. K. Gayle says:


    I meant in the previous comment to suggest that Bellos – by using the “match” metaphors and his “oil portrait” similes – might be making a contrast to Eugene Nida’s work against and for “equivalences.” Nida, of course, worked against formal “equivalence” and toward functional “equivalence.”

    At another blog post, I have quoted Bellos more directly on Nida, fyi:


    Delightfully, Bellos speaks to this whole question of one translator bettering another. He sent an email to explain, in particular, why he said he liked a certain translator’s translation. And in it he said the following (which is in a comment at the end of the above-linked post).

    “One of my strongest wishes in writing Is That a Fish in Your Ear? was to move “translation studies” away from always dubious judgments about “which translation is better” or which translator should be put in the stocks or have nails stuck into his effigy. I’ve tried to show that there is another way of doing translation studies that is much more interesting than the sniping that is such a large part of the tradition of translation commentary. See my chapter 30!”

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’ve often thought of translation as “pattern matching.” I’ve pictured the original text as a very highly complex system of black dots on a white page. And when that text communicates there are many connecting lines, not actually scribed on the page, but nevertheless, they connect the dots. Some dots are more connected than others. And, to make the metaphor even more complex, and yet to better capture the reality of the text itself, there are additional lines–creating a 3D effect–which connect the dots on the page with dots hovering but fixed over and around the context of the page. The original text, as a communication event forms a complex, near holographic, pattern of dots and lines.

    Word-for-word translation, or closest morphosyntactic equivalent translation (to be more precise), seeks to reproduce the dots. Just the dots. It hopes (and I’d add, against hope) to generate the intended pattern by copying the dots. The problem with that is the destination language doesn’t naturally and efficiently support the same connections which are naturally and efficiently supported by the source language. So, one ends up with a different pattern–one that needs explanation, footnotes, sermonic elucidation, seminary libraries filled with books, in order for that pattern to be re-characterized and re-molded back into something that more correctly reproduces the originally intended pattern. [Actually, I think we’ve…well…embellished…the original pattern a bit. Well! Ok! A lot!! But, I digress.]

    So, I was very pleasantly surprised and gratified when I read statements like “Bellos’s deep philosophical enemy…nomenclaturism“, and the possibility that the philosophy of “different mental worlds” has been dismantled by Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, and, in particular, the following quote from the review:

    “Finding a match for a joke and a match for a style,” Bellos writes, “are both instances of a more general ability that may best be called a pattern-matching skill.”

    What if translation were thought of as “intentional pattern equivalence”?

  8. Ernst Wendland says:

    Thanks for these additional quotes, J.K. I see more clearly now (since I do not have access to the Bellos book) that it was Thirlwell, the reviewer, who was actually using the term “equivalence.”
    Yes, the term “match” is useful–I am thinking now of basic translator training courses. In fact, that is the term that Lynell Zogbo and I use in ch. 4 of “Hebrew Poetry in the Bible”.
    However, to my chagrin, when I checked our Glossary, lo and behold this key term was nowhere to be seen!
    To use a common expression (if you’ll pardon it!) from news reportage on the world’s current economic crisis and its many proposed solutions, “The devil is in the details.” How then should one define “match” with reference to translation? Webster works for a start: “to be equal, similar, suitable, or corresponding in some way.”
    The big question in the case of any translation, however, remains: match with respect to form (and on which levels), content, and/or function? And on what basis does one determine this when engaged in the very act? That goes back again to “for whom?” and in which primary setting of use?
    In any case, I could happily live with the term “translation matching” as a practical label for what we’re trying to do–as long as it does not give ordinary Bible translators a more literalistic notion of their task.

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