The Art of Translation (preface)

Revisiting the Philological Approach to Foreign Language Study

by Gabrielle Anderson

copyright 2009

‘To study the uses of a language not only in its past or its present forms, but as something that is continuously changing, continually moving from the past through the present and into the future, turns out to be a fundamentally interdisciplinary task.”


(Philology of the Future, Futures of Philology, Helge Jordheim, 2004)


“Real intercultural communication, understood as a dialogue between equal parties, presupposes highly developed linguistic competences and a profound knowledge of culture and history enabling ‘translation’ from one context to another.”


(Foreign Language Studies and Intedisciplinarity, Hans Lauge Hansen, 2004)


One of the paradoxes generated by the democratic transformation of traditionalist philosophies throughout the 20th century was the paradox of duplicity: the duplicity of Science with regards to what is indisputable and what is relative. Science has evolved as a vast field that, on the plan of spirituality and psychology, has been working assiduously to contain all opinions, assumptions, and extrapolations into the manageable matrix of (usually indisputable) “scientific knowledge”; and yet, on the other hand, in the social and political spheres — fields that were once associated with “culture” and “tradition” — omnipotent Science has been expanding tremendously in order to promote relativism. Thus, relativism was slowly diffused under the aegis of the famed theory initially generated by an author whose undeniable sense of humour was made apparent by a frequently mediatized photo where he stares — not tongue in cheek but stick-out tongue — straight into the eyes of a bewildered posterity.


Relativism, as a term, came into being in the shape of a popular revolutionary-scientific theory, and it has gradually spread its webs into our everyday thinking by means of democratically-driven artistic productions and increasingly licentious approaches. At first, relativism seemed only to reassert, under the new scientific clout, some of the age-old wisdom of European religions that had been stifled by dogmatic rules. Over the past two hundred years, however, relativism has thrived beyond any anticipated limits, especially in the postmodern West-European and transatlantic cultures, as a propitious medium for multiple voices to come alive with equal strengths and rights to persuasion in the realm of social and cultural mores and in the interrelated sphere of politics. The democratic energies released through this process — and the new philosophy asserting that anybody could achieve any desired goals given the appropriate instruction — have raised Western civilizations’ level of material well-being to peaks that would have been impossible in the aristocratic, pedantic societies of yesteryear.


Ultimately, it is common wisdom that relativism, this grandchild of the Enlightenment reasoning ghost, has empowered modern societies with channels for social and artistic expressiveness that have made us know each other as human beings — or, at least, fulfill our individual big or small potentials and egos — much more profoundly and on a much larger scale than ever before. Despite the current self-bashing on topics such as the lowering of standards in education, there should be no doubt that the West’s prosperity was built on the intrinsic value of relativism — a well-brewed recipe without which democracy would not have been possible; relative values have allowed for more social equality, and relative quality has allowed for more production (implicitly, more selling options and larger, more diverse markets, ultimately resulting in higher material profits for every citizen).


Successes, as always, come with (relative) drawbacks, and one of the minuses usually deplored by many experts nowadays is the depreciation of moral values and the lowering of intellectual standards in the field of humanities where a variety of interests — many political — have bypassed the conservative rigors of meticulous learning specific of previous centuries.


As the famous 19th century tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Christian Andersen, goes: the beauty of the clothing, and sometimes even the clothing itself, is just in the eye of the beholder…. Genuine cultivation is a regal mantle that takes many many years of assiduous study to weave, and it is utterly visible in its splendor when it exists; but merely pretending that it is there will make it neither happen nor cover anyone. By analogy, a modern student’s studying just “for the credits” — as the habit is now in many schools — and paying the school for credits that are backed only by flimsy, fleeting knowledge will never get any student far in his/her life. Therefore, despite the benefits of relativism in many sectors, relativism in education creates faulty approaches whose results will resemble the fabled emperor’s wardrobe.

It seems that nowadays in the United States little has survived from the classical approaches once decided by austere honor-bound teachers whose only ambitions, in their lives devoted to study, were to pass their Renaissance values onto the open minds of their students. Gone are the times of wise teachers sworn to devote themselves to the noble task of refining new spirits who, subsequently, would prove capable to build on the achievements of prior generations of scholars and artists. Many critics of the contemporary methods of teaching Humanities (which include subjects like Creative Writing and Translation) claim that these methods miss the substance inherent to true cultivation, that “the emperor wears no clothes,” and that we are deceiving ourselves into believing that a multiple-choice quiz or a standardized test will reveal more than superficial knowledge and perhaps a student’s degree of luck.

When applying this situation to the field of translation, one could find that multiple-version i.e. relative translations are nothing more than creative ego-affirming approximations, too…. An insightful article by U.S. writer Lee Siegel reflects the experience of many avid readers (myself included), and it also summarizes a contemporary academic problem:

“Literature changed my life long before I began to study it in college and then, in a hapless trance, in graduate school. Born into modest circumstances, I plunged with wonder into the turbulent emotions of Julien Sorel, the young romantic striver of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” My parents might have fought as their marital troubles crashed into divorce, but Chekhov’s stories sustained me with words that captured my sadness, and Keats’s language filled me with a beauty that repelled the forces that were making me sad. Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.” But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts.” (“Who ruined humanities,” Lee Siegel, The Wall Street Journal, 2013)


The contemporary educational impasse frequently captures the headlines in the United States, a Western society in which, fortunately, religion is still neither minimized nor denied the way it has been in many European countries after the Enlightenment

And the educational impasse can be solved. Someday, perhaps sooner than we may think, political orientations toward a reconnection with the wisdom of older epochs  — such as a reconnection with times that preceded the Theory of Relativity and other modern, post-modern, hubristic theories — could “unearth” and reactivate those plain inexpensive tools that our ancestors used so successfully to create the intellectual jewels we nowadays admire only in museums and on the “Classics” shelves. That day we will have to acknowledge once more that the majority of those great works were at first inspired by nothing more – and nothing less — than the harmonious art of words.


Today, just as for millennia before, just as in the Beginning, words matter because they are used not only to pass messages that reflect our mundane experiences — they are like vessels of electrical, magical, magnetic content that we release into this world, sometimes with impacts we, people, are still in wonder about, impacts that brainwave science is yet to satisfactorily explain. 

Refined words — with their sounds, shapes, and intricate links — still continue to matter for the same reasons for which they were once held to be more sensible and justified than coarse words (although for a few decades now entire societies worldwide have chosen to obliviously promote the latter in their “popular” cultures).


At their best, words become alive on pages according to the description of this celebrated writer:

“For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, human beings and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings, and think back to partings which one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents that one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and one did not grasp it (it was joy for someone else); to childhood illness that used to begin so strangely with a number of deep, solemn transformations; to days in withdrawn quiet chambers and to mornings by the sea; to the sea itself, to seas, and to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars – and it is not enough if one may think all of this. One must also have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbeds, their bodies closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again. For it is still not about the memories themselves –not until they have turned into blood within us, into glance, into gesture, nameless memories that can no longer be distinguished from our own selves – not until then can it happen that, in a rarest hour, the first word of a verse would arise in their midst and go forth from them.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: A Novel)


From the viewpoint of a translator, I feel confident to affirm that what Rilke implies here, with his poetic description of the act of writing, is an inflexible position: a plea for accepting the unicity of The Poet (implicitly of a creative writer). And his position has been that of men and women of letters for most of humanity’s history….

His position is that the mere one verse, once finally born (inspiration allowing) — after having undergone a painful pearl-like growth out of the myriad of personal memories and feelings inside the soul of a writer — would amazingly unique; and, we might deduce, it would be so unique that it would expect and certainly deserve only the most faithful translation into another language.

And how could that be achieved when Rilke’s own words are likely to reach even his German readers in a myriad of ways according to criteria as relative as levels of poetic sensitivity, personal imagination, intellectual cultivation, and subjective, transitory mood…?


To answer that questions, we would have to look back in time. At the root of understanding the humanities field we’ll find the ability to understand words and their complex formation. Before the postmodern perspectives of the 20th century, the art of translation was as old as that of writing, and contemporary translators would find it useful to remember that the classical tradition that sought to promote ultimate accuracy in translation actually sprang and developed from ancient schothe lars’ religious exegeses. Some of these sources aimed at understanding the “Word” (as in Biblical religions and varius midrashim) through the pursuit of many intellectual objectives — including the goal of demystifying the translation process itself. Therefore, the study of words for the love of words and reason, otherwise known as philological study, represents an indispensable tool to anyone who would contemplate the job of translating even one literary paragraph in a manner that would honor that paragraph’s author.


From the viewpoint of any reader, the comparison between various translations of a foreign text into a particular language represents a precious method that can provide insight into the role of semantic nuances. Eventually, the presence of significant variations among several translation versions will raise analytical questions about the reasons underlying each translator’s semantic choices. In addition to that, comparative analyses between several translations of one text into various languages (especially into languages sharing the same linguistic family with the original text) can shed light not only on the way in which the respective translators employed certain etymologies, but also on their diverse interpretations of the author’s psychological profile (his/her creative genius) as sensed instinctively as well as intellectually by each translator according to sometimes very subjective cultural backgrounds.


Nowadays, just as in the past, the question that will eventually linger on the back of most readers’ minds after reading a literary will be: which translation – if any – is the most compatible with the original work. And it is doubtless that only a convincing answer would manage to assuage foreign readers’ regrets at not being able to comprehend the original text on their own…. It is also reasonable to accept the fact that genially-accurate translations have always been produced, and that a philologically-initiated admirer of a writer who would happen to be fluent in the writer’s language would ultimately be able to distinguish, based on classical criteria of linguistic and emotional appeals, the best version of a translated text among several diverse, relative, translations….


Ensuring complete accuracy in translation should be seen now, just as centuries and milennia ago, as the primary duty of a translator: a mission in which the translator should relentlessly search for the tools that can demystify – de-relativise — the contemporary translation practices.



The philological tools that I employ in this book are based on classical philology as it is still studied in European “old schools”, to my knowledge, in reputable French, British, German and in a  few East-European universities (the philological departments dedicated to foreign language studies). In writing it, I tried to skip the complexities of linguistic theory, and I focused instead only on the practical use of philological tools and knowledge as applied to the art of translation. In this book, the philological approach method is applied to the English language in reference to a comparison of translated excerpts from three Romance languages: French, Italian and Romanian.


The most important result of employing the time-honored philological method in translation is quasi-perfect accuracy. From a translator’s viewpoint, the changes that have occurred in the English language — and particularly in American English —  during the 20th c. should not justify licentious translations meant to accommodate other realities rather than the author’s own terms (such as in the example I provide in Chapter 7, in which a recent New York version of Tennessee Williams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire” introduced a conventional “English translation” of an English phrase that, presumably, in 2006 could not elicit anymore the same effect as in the 1947 play… when meaning to say <<If you come near me, I’ll scream>>, a threatened Blanche Du Bois ended up saying <<If you come near me I’ll scream “fire”!>>).) Rather than committing to prosaic changes, any postmodern adjustments should have been subtly reconciled with the original text to sensitively convey the author’s meanings  to an informed audience.


Philology also deals with the concepts of  symbolism and multi-level meanings in linguistic expression, therefore it combines the study of languages with the study of literature, history, grammar, lexicology, psychoanalytic criticism, and politics (philologists were often recruited for diplomatic/intelligence jobs in Europe). Classical philology has been studied in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, etc, and it is particularly important in the Hebrew exegesis, but it started to be promoted as a scholastic subject under the European Renaissance when the first  European philological traditions were established in various countries.


The 20th century developments in linguistics initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure and Chomsky have had the effect of diminishing the importance of  antique, lexically-intuitive, “word-power”-oriented approaches that one can find in Homer and Cicero for instance. Instead, these postmodern scholars and their followers focussed on another (medieval, e.g. esoteric) tradition: an exegesis that emphasized the importance of quantifiable associations, thus of syntactic patterns meant to reveal the inner structure of texts through mathematical logic.

With regard to the field of translation, their work paved the way to various trends including our postmodern enthusiasm about the future of computerized translation and the current tendency of some to see translation as an unpretentious rendering of words into other languages. (To underestimate the importance of a translator’s level of philological education is frequently a mistaken path, even when a translator — nowadays  usually a basic-certificate holder — has to translate just administrative documents, as seen in the cases when tiny translation errors caused diplomatic catastrophes).


While that important “quantifiable” perspective is given weight also in the philological approach described in this book, we support the position that a translator will have to be permanently aware of the danger of mechanical word conversion. In the absence of human intuition, that basic translation method would not produce satisfactory results i.e. faithfully conveying all the hidden meanings and subtleties intended by the author. In literary translation the basic approach cannot be applied even to apparently simple — “childish” — texts (an example in this sense is analyzed in Chapter 3 offering three comparative translations of “The Little Prince”); therefore it would be dangerous and, indeed, sad for our generation and the students who are nowadays being educated in humanities programs in our schools, to indulge in the expectation that a computerized translation of Rilke would ever be “better”, or even comparable, to a translation performed by a human translator of literature who  would know all Rilke’s work on account of philological study and who would feel personally attuned to it….


Why would I not appreciate computerized translation/interpreting (there is no computerized “interpreting” job worthy mentioning, in fact). Computers are supposed to avoid the relativism of translation processes — just as they are expected to do impartial paper grading in schools — and the outcomes have been less than stellar. Often enough I have had friendly debates on this topic with science fans without reaching successful conclusions, their answer being always “the computer science will progress and take over all communications.” I have few scientific arguments against that scenario…. One plain argument I like to offer is contained in this story: in the 1990s, while performing simultaneous English interpreting at an international conference conducted in a small room with no other equipment than a microphone, I noticed a couple of Australian female experts listening intently to my Romanian sentences, an unmistakable expression of disapproval on their faces. The conference was about children with cerebral palsy who had lived secluded in East-European orphanages; having had the opportunity to study extensively the topic, I was sure that my translation was accurate. During the break I ventured to make an inquiry: I friendly greeted the two ladies, then discretely asked if indeed they were concerned about my translation and, if so, why — given that they acknowledged they could not understand any word in Romanian (in fact, on previous days, some Romanian listeners who were fluent in English had congratulated me for my irreproachable interpreting). The ladies’ equally friendly response was prompt: I was not projecting to the audience “the spirit” of the Australian biologist whose lecture I had been interpreting….

Now that was a surprise! As every conference interpreter knows, simultaneous interpreting contractual conditions require — under the mark of professionalism — that the translator should display at all times an impersonal voice capable of shadowing the voice of the lecturer without ever covering it or mimicking it, so that the spotlight should remain constantly on the lecturer. But these ladies’ observation spoke volumes, too, with regard to what the translator’s duty still remains, despite official view and formal prescriptions on what a translator’s professional demeanor should be. A translator’s/interpreter’s duty is to maintain faithfully the original “spirit” of the translated work by sharing the author’s own emotions with the readers, whether the work were a piece of prose, a poem, or a scientific lecture delivered with pathos for the sake of raising funds.

It was not that I had been expected to falsely sound as loud as the lecturer, or to copy her voice, or to mimic her gestures. However, by attempting to remain (computer-like) “professional” in my accurate translation of words and sentences, I had overlooked the simple fact that the soul of that entire lecture that was dedicated to orphan children, ultimately relied on my ability to transfer the emotional appeal of the ordinary English words into an equally electrifying Romanian appeal. It was not a matter of intonation, voice or facial expression (which a computer screen can provide too); it was about empathetically or  truly caring about that topic, literally putting in my inner human energy — apparently felt or not felt by the listeners inside the small room — in order to support their cause…

During the next session, I gave up the agency-recommended impersonal style, and allowed myself to proceed in sync with the emotional drive of the dedicated biologist as if I had written the biologist’s lecture myself, all along never missing or altering even one word of her carefully prepared text. It worked with surprisingly successful fund-raising results.

This is only one example from a career that taught me how much words matter … because indeed they are used not only to pass messages that reflect our mundane experiences — they are like vessels of electrical, magical, magnetic content that we release into this world….



A product of experiences such as the one described above, and of knowledge I have accumulated in over thirty years of philological study, teaching, and translation practice, the present book brings back to the attention of English-speaking readers and students a series of basic tools derived from classical philology.

These tools, the same I was taught by my old teachers in Europe, are: etymological references, literary psychoanalyses; phonetical, syntactic and morphologic analyses; semiotics and structuralism; rhetorics, and comparative literatures analysis. Though it may appear complicated when described as above, this philological analysis coursework — encompassing subjects that are usually studied separately — is deliberately simplified in my book by means of an incursion into the world of 19th century – early 20th century comparative literatures. To support my explanations, I have selected text excerpts translated into four languages: English, Italian, French and Romanian (the English version only is analyzed philologically, while the Romance language text excerpts are included in full, as well, to facilitate the cross-analysis).

Although no knowledge of any of the Romance languages is needed in order to benefit from this overall analysis of the translation art, one may discover that one’s familiarity with English Latin cognates can acquire new dimensions after this incursion into three Romance languages.

At the end of the book, one will also feel empowered with a reliable methodology to better appreciate the difference in quality between multiple translations of a text — according to classicist criteria of hermeneutics that one will have meanwhile learned to identify.


This chapter started by singling out one paradox of the 20th century: the relativist path of value acceptance. Of course, as a linguist, I would not completely disagree with that path (only with its mannerisms or politics…). Specifically, I would agree that free thinking, emotion, and talent are as inherent to the translation process as they are to creative writing. But literary translation should eliminate relative pathways and, instead, strive for classical one-way clarity once again….


I am fully optimistic about the future of literary creation and translation being won by human minds in the age of computers, and my conviction relies on another paradox of our time: namely that, while language — a volatile body animated by its users — is fragile, fluctuating, and perishable, it is also extremely resilient in its ability to preserve and revive insidious meanings, and in its amazing versatility for cross-border enrichment…

If living today, the democratically-inclined genius of a Shakespeare or of a Twain would probably bask in the vast avenues of lexical riches that the British English and the American English dialects have spread between the heights of academic lingos and the sharpest edges of slums’ slangs; and out of this liberal brew of linguistic possibilities such a genius would still bring forth works of profound philosophy, poetry, and fiction able to challenge and, perhaps, transform and balance again the general mentality of our world that today has become as mired in relativities as it was once in rigidities.