Contemporary versus ‘true' translation

July 20, 2016
Contemporary versus ‘true' translation

Literary translation is a wonderful way in which cultures can share their novels, from modern-day masterpieces to ancient classics. But is there ever a case for modernising a classic work of literature when translating it, or should the translation always remain true to the original? 

Alis Advencha ina Wandalan

The question arose recently of whether Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland should have remained so true to the original when translated into Jamaican Patois. Translator Tamirand Nnena De Lisser remained dutifully close to Lewis Caroll’s quirky original tale when professionally translating the book for a Jamaican audience. The result was a translation that was, in places, felt to be too literal by some readers. 

As an example:

“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw around, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw, “lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.”


“Ina da direkshan de,” di Pus se, a wiev roun im rait paa, “wahn Hat-Man liv: an ina da direkshan de,” a wiev di ada paa, “wahn Maach-Hier liv. Luk fi eni wan a dem yu waahn luk fa: di tuu a dem mad.”

Critics have suggested that “Ina da direkshan de” might better have been replaced with “ova desso” (over there) and “ova yasso” (over here), to reflect the way the language is actually spoken. However, proponents of De Lisser’s translation have argued that it is correct to present a translation of the language that Lewis Caroll intended to use, rather than a modernization created to suit a contemporary audience’s linguistic flow. 

To modernise or not to modernise: that is the question 

One argument is that literature should be appreciated in its original form and thus the translation should remain pure, but that doesn’t account for the benefits that modernising a great literary work can bring about. 

Presenting the works of great writers such as Chaucer or Shakespeare to new audiences through modernisation can help to spark passion for the originals, reaching those who might otherwise be put off by the archaic language. 

A recent modernisation of French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac has done just that, with Saratoga Shakespeare Company receiving praise for the “beautiful and colloquially current” performance. 

Remaining true to the original

Still, there will be many who believe that literary classics are, in great part, considered classics due to the language that they use as well as the tale they tell and the characters they bring to life. The idea that a translation should be purely a translation, with no modernisation or ‘dumbing down’ for contemporary audiences, if the literature is to be appreciated as it was intended is certainly a strong argument. 

Final thoughts

There is certainly a case for translation to remain strictly true to the original work of fiction, be it a poem, a play or a novel, in order for the author’s true meaning to speak to the audience. There are also benefits to sympathetic modernisation taking place as well as translation, in order that great works of literature can reach out to whole new audiences (Baz Luhrmann’s award-winning 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet being a prime example). 

Ultimately, inspiring an interest in literature in all its forms has to be beneficial in terms of cultural development. Whether you support modernisation as well as translation, or believe the original should be translated as closely as possible, the very fact that the translation is taking place means that new audiences can be reached and inspired. 

Your views

Do you believe great literary works should be modernised or translated exactly? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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