Literal vs. Free Translation
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Many choices go into the translation of a text. One of the most important is the method employed. The final product should not read as a labyrinth of confusing jargon, nor should read as a useless gloss over important cultural differences. Since the dawn of translation, people have argued over the best method to use. Should it be faithful to the original, sticking to the source? Should it be beautiful, rendering the message of the text as the original audience would have understood it?
Literal Translation is the act of rendering as closely as possible the wording, structure, and grammar of a source document into the translation. Fluency is not as important as fidelity. This type of text is often made for students and scholars who have knowledge of the language they are reading. Ancient Greek translated texts into Latin used the literal word for word approach. A one to one basis of literal substitution was preferred. A modern example is in the two dialects of Spain, Catalan, and Mainland Spanish.
Scholarly editions of foreign literature often use special bilingual editions. Each sentence or paragraph will appear in the source language followed by a literal target language translation. If literal readings of idioms and puns give difficulty, footnotes will explain subtleties or confusion.
The German translator Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote in his 1813 essay On the Different Methods of Translating, "Either the translator leaves the author in peace as much as possible and moves the reader toward him; or he leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer toward him." (Lefevere 1977:74)
Free Translation is the act of rendering the sense of a source document, rather than slavishly dragging source words and word order into the translation. Understanding of both cultures is also important in free translations. Fluency for target readers is more important than fidelity.
Imagine a children’s book. It uses a certain vocabulary, in a certain way, for a certain audience. The material needs a translation that children will understand. Puns, jokes, and idioms need reworking or rewording altogether to give the same feel. An advert that uses a play on words needs the same wordplay if brought into another culture.
A unit of translation is "the stretch of source text on which the translator focuses attention in order to represent it as a whole in the target language." (Lorscher 1993:209) A text produced with two similar languages can use word as the unit of translation. Other languages with different grammatical structures may use clauses or sentences as units of translation.
If the translation is literal, the units of translation may not split only by sentence, but also by word. If a source segment follows an SOV pattern, the target segment will also try to use an SOV pattern even if the target language uses an SVO pattern. A simple set phrase such as a greeting may show a strict literal adherence instead of common meaning. The Japanese greeting Ohayou Gozaimasu (Good Morning) may render as Early it is or it is early. This breaks the set phrase unit for word level unit. Likewise, Good Morning rendered as Ii Asa would lose the sense of meaning in the phrase.
Units in free translation will focus on sense of phrase rather than individual words. Conforming to the grammatical structure of the target language is also necessary. A source segment with an SOV pattern forms into an SVO pattern in an SVO grammar. Good Morning is more recognizable in English, and it keeps the same feel as the original; a greeting used in the morning.
The translator has at their disposal many methods of rendering a text. They can construct a specialized text that students use to study language or an easily readable localized text for the masses.
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