Poetic Licence and Translation
Thread poster: Ritu Bhanot

Ritu Bhanot  Identity Verified
Member (2006)
French to Hindi
+ ...
May 31, 2005


Recently, I was doing a back translation and the original text was really bad i.e. wrong grammar, wrong usage, wrong syntax and the translator had actually used poetic licence and created words that don't exist in that language.

I called up the translation bureau and asked them as to how did they want me to do it. The purpose of a back-translation is usually to check if the original translation is correct. And if it isn't, how does a translator deal with it?

The person at the bureau took his own time and eventually gave me the number of the translator who had done the original translation... This translator was pretty irritated. I think probably because the people at the bureau had already discussed the matter with him...

He tried to convince me that though these words don't exist, they were correct. I gave him the correct meaning of those terms according to dictionaries but... I was told that I should learn from him and if I didn't want to learn I could just do it as I wanted to... He told me that he was an established translator who worked for some very prestigious organisations etc...

But what really shocked me was that he accepted that some of these words don't exist and that he had created them.
According to him a translator has a sort of poetic language (which my teachers at the university had told me is not the case)... And if a translator really has that sort of licence then can we create words to replace the words that actually exist and are used in a language?

I'd love toicon_wink.gif

I am really confused... what is the right thing to do in such circumstances.

I'd appreciate any views on this subject.

Thanks a lot for your help.


Ritu Bhanot


Chiara_M  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:41
French to Italian
+ ...
Translation is creation (with limitations) May 31, 2005


It's quite an interesting thread.

The creative power (and freedom) depends on the source text, I think.

If I deal with a plain text I don't need to be creative in translation. On the other side, if I deal with a creative text, I must be creative, too.

If have to translate a novel abounding with inventions (just think of Queneau my favourite writer), and I'm not as creative as the author, my translation will be unfaithful. And the contrary is true, too. If I deal with an ordinary text, using common expressions, a creative translation will be unfaithful.

When I decided I wanted to be a translator it was beacause I thought (and I still think, indeed) that languages are living creatures. I love manipulating language and it is the translation aspect I love more.

A good translator should always be mindful of "limitations" and this awareness strongly depends on sensitivity and experience.

What it is important, and what makes a good translator, I think, is the ability to mould the target text to the source one (in contents, in style and in tone).


Derek Gill Franßen  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:41
German to English
+ ...
Inventiveness v. Laziness May 31, 2005

This is an interesting question. It reminds me of something my father once told me regarding translations (he translated before becoming an attorney and later a judge): "One of the fun things about translating patents is that - once in a while - you get to create a new word."

I would like to note that his comment was very much directed at translating PATENTS, which often contain new ideas.

On the other hand, I think one should be wary when inventiveness is actually just an expression of laziness, i.e. the translator is too lazy to go looking for a term that is correct (or most fitting) and actually exists.

Personally, I think that inventing new words must remain the absolute exception to the rule, which is doing the necessary research into existing terminology.icon_smile.gif

[Edited at 2005-05-31 09:13]


Ritu Bhanot  Identity Verified
Member (2006)
French to Hindi
+ ...
Poetic Tranlsations May 31, 2005

It's quite interesting to know that we can actually create...

Does that imply that we can re-invent translations of words that that have equivalent in the Target Language? And what if it changes the meaning of the Text?

I have actually written a couple of books in the Source Language and I write in both Source and Target Language and am perfectly bilingual. Somehow those words seem to be strange... and as a native speaker of these languages I feel that these were just bad translations resulting from laziness.

And it was a Medical Text!!!

The Neologisms actually just changed the meaning of the original text!!!

"Symptoms of disease" (Source) became "Symptoms disease" (Target)
"Effective" (soruce) almost became "Non-governmental" (Target)


Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:11
English to Hindi
+ ...
Back translation has a limited mandate May 31, 2005

Since this was a back translation, its purpose was to check how accurately the original translation has been done.

You should simply have translated it back the way it was given to you, poetic licence and all, and watched the fun, as the original client took the first translator, and the agency which hired him, to task.

As far as poetic licence in translation goes, it is a balancing act. Any translator's first priority should be communication, that is, the translated material should convey the correct meaning to the target audience. The second priority should be to the original, that is he/she should be as faithful to the original as possible, not only at the level of meaning, but also at the level of word choice, structure, idioms, images, etc. If the two languages are from the same cultural background, like Hindi and Gujarati, or French and English, this can be done to a large extent, but if the cultures involved are different, then this becomes very difficult, and that is where the poetic licence bit comes into play.

In your case, if the translator had coined words that don't exist in the language and had slipped up in matters of grammar and usage, then that is not poetic licence at all, I would call it ieptness on his part.


Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:41
Spanish to English
+ ...
2 cents May 31, 2005

shyamal wrote:

But what really shocked me was that he accepted that some of these words don't exist and that he had created them.
According to him a translator has a sort of poetic language (which my teachers at the university had told me is not the case)... And if a translator really has that sort of licence then can we create words to replace the words that actually exist and are used in a language?

Where the words actually exist, I can't reconcile any need for invention. However, I can imagine fields (like metalanguage in linguistics) in which the tried and tested terms may actually refer to something other than what the writer means.

Apart from that, when working with languages that have a long tradition, it is possible that time/historial layers may condition the use of that language. For instance, a new foreign word may be grafted inorganically into everyday colloquial use to the detriment of an older existing term that can be directly employed or "updated". In such a case, I would tend to favour the older word rather than resort to borrowing, but I realize this is a personal preference that may not be practicable in some cases (mass media and journalism might prioritise reaching a broader audience over refinement, for example). Note that the "poetic license" in such cases may occur on both sides of the question: a recycled older term may imply its use as much as the grafting or coinage of a new word. Also note that it may take more skill to update an older term rather than invent one willy-nilly.


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