Strategies of translation, translation as strategy

Strategies of translation

Last class we talked about Robert Bly’s “Eight Stages of Translation” in which he somewhat artificially maps out eight things a translator must (or should) do in translating. Briefly, they are:

1. Create a literal version (a trot)

2. Read closely for deep meaning

3. Turn the literal into English

4. Turn it into spoken English

5. Focus on the tone and mood

6. Focus on the sound, meter, rhythm, rhyme

7. Have it read by someone else

8. Make final choices

The first stages are about meaning, reading carefully for what the words mean and what the piece means. And this is an important difference. Each individual word has standard and non-standard meanings, complex connotations, cultural references, tone, mood, meter, rhythm, rhyme and sound. Each word. And the combination of the words that create the work of literature create new meanings. This may seem obvious, even basic, but as a translator you have to engage with both. And which, really, is more important?

The second stages are about poetics, reading carefully for the poetics. But something we talked about in class is that poetics work to construct meaning. So really, in both cases we’re paying attention to meaning, just not in the way that we almost always first think of meaning: as the direct, uncomplicated standard-usage dictionary definition of a word.

Just for fun, I want to push that idea a little bit. Does a word really have a standard, agreed-upon significance that is always referred to when we use the word? I looked up “meaning” in the OED, and the first entry is:

The action of mean v.2; moaning, lamentation.

The entry marks it as obscure, and dates its usage in this sense from 1225-1572. So this is no longer, obviously, a usage most of us would think of when we read the word. Still, for three hundred years, it was a standard significance for this word. The second definition of the word is the one most of us would expect to find. Still, it has six definitions for us to choose from (even omitting many of the sub-definitions):

1. The significance, purpose, underlying truth, etc., of something.

2. The sense or signification of a word, sentence, etc.

 a. Of language, a sentence, word, text, etc.: signification, sense. By extension: the thing, person, etc., for which a word or expression stands; the denotation or referent of a word or expression. Also: the signification intended to be understood by a statement, law, etc., as opposed to the literal sense of the words; cf. spirit n. 10c.


 3. (A person’s) motive, intention, or purpose. Usu. in sing. Now arch.


 a. Knowledge, understanding. Obs.


 b. An opinion, belief. Obs.


5. Remembrance (chiefly in to have (also make) meaning of (also on)). Also: a commemoration, a memorial. Cf. mean v.1 12. Obs.

Cf. minning n., often occurring in Middle English manuscripts as a variant reading for this word.


6. Mention. Only in to make meaning (often in negative constructions). Cf. mean v.1 10. Obs.


What’s the point of quoting the dictionary at you? Well, it’s not so simple, is it, to figure out what a word actually means. We still have to make choices, decide our interpretation, figure it out from context, and from poetics. And that’s the real point: significance and poetics combine to create the meaning of a literary text. They are equally important, and going back to the eight stages, poetics is perhaps more important. It’s certainly harder to understand and translate, which may be why it takes up four of the eight stages according to Bly.

So if we are in the first two stages reading for the literal (dictionary) meaning and the deep (poetic) meaning of the text, the very beginning of translating is being a close reader. It is based on this close reading of the text we find the authority to make the decisions that follow, our interpretations (and every translation is an interpretation) are based on how closely we’ve read the text.

Translation as Strategy

For today we read Larry Venuti’s great article on Words Without Borders “How to Read a Translation.” It pairs nicely with the Bly because they both develop approaches to translation. And because Venuti draws out many of the implications of Bly’s approach. Venuti’s rules are roughly thus:

1. Read for both meaning and language

2. Don’t impose ‘current standard dialect’ expectations on a text

3. Read for literary connections, allusions and references

4. Read the translator’s introduction

5. A single text is not representative of a whole culture

In both Bly and Venuti we find an emphasis on reading the deep meanings of the text, the poetics. In both Bly and Venuti we find a focus on mixing dictions and registers to create a layered, multifaceted work.  In both we’re told that allusion and cultural references are an essential layer of meaning in a literary text. This is all as true for prose as for poetry and drama.

Reading translation as an engaged reader is different from reading works of original composition. But not hugely. If we’re reading closely, we’re paying attention to not just the meaning of the text but how that meaning is constructed. We’re paying attention to language, style, sound, poetics, rhythm, meter, allusion, diction, register, tone, etc., etc. Careful close reading of any text involves these things. The difference in translation is who we ascribe those choices to. The meaning of the text, the plot, the subject matter, the characters, the theme or conceit—those are (in a standard non-experimental translation) choices the original author made. The deeper layers of meaning, the poetics, sound, style, and even in many cases the allusion—those are choices the translator made. The translator is the author of the text in translation. A translated text is dually authored. We know, from thinking and reading carefully, a good part of what to ascribe to the translator and what to ascribe to the author. As for the rest, does it matter? The work we engage with primarily is always the work of the translator.

Paying attention to all this sounds like an impossible task, sort of unimaginably long and close reading. But of course, we don’t have to do this all the time, for every text. Unless you’re writing critical reviews or essays about a text, you don’t have to constantly pay attention to every element of close reading. The point is that when something stands out to you, as either astonishingly great beautiful writing or awkwardly constructed language, to think about what it means, who made that decision and why.


  1. I’m very interested in your thinking and what you are doing with this class. I am considering returning to teaching (was in Comp. Lit. at U. of Iowa 35 years ago) and for a course I am taking on teaching methods am putting together a syllabus for an Introduction to Translation course (Chicago City Colleges) that may reach fruition sometime in the future. I will follow your blog avidly and would appreciate a contact, if you permit.

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