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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Theory  »  Translation theory with regards to translating metaphors

Translation theory with regards to translating metaphors

By | Published  05/24/2008 | Translation Theory | Recommendation:
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Translation theory with regards to translating metaphors
by Nina Elin Brevik,

Defining “metaphor”
Before discussing the problems that may arise when it comes to translating metaphors, it is practical to discuss exactly what a metaphor is. As a child, I was taught that a metaphor is a comparison made without using words of comparison, including as, such as and like. The word metaphor derives from the Greek word metaphora; meta meaning ‘over’ and phora/pherein, which means ‘to carry’. Aristotle defined metaphor as “the application to one thing of the name of another thing”. Translation theory seems to be lacking a precise definition of metaphor. In his article Can “Metaphor” Be Translated?, M. B. Dagut criticises this approach, and writes: “The rehabilitation of “metaphor” in translation theory must thus, clearly, begin with the restoration to the term of its proper (and vitally significant) semantic content” (1976:22). He divides metaphors into two categories, simplex and complex, which in their “passage from performance to competence” results in the creation of polysemes and idioms accordingly. Dagut writes: “Polyseme and idiom are thus seen to stand in a derivative relation to metaphor as effect to cause; but they differ significantly from metaphor in their semantic regularity as against its semantic anomaly” (1976:23).

The main problem
There are several problems related to translating metaphors, the most obvious being, as Dagut points out, the fact that “since a metaphor in SL (source language) is, by definition, a semantic novelty, it can clearly have no existing “equivalence” in TL (target language)” (my brackets) (1976:24). Sylfest Lomheim writes in his book “Omsetjingsteori” that “striking metaphors in SL can only be translated equivalently using as striking metaphors in TL (1995:132), and claims that in order to have a fair chance of achieving this, the translator himself must have a talent for creative writing (1995:134). As he points out, metaphors both convey meaning in a very economical way, as well as create new ways of using a language (1995:132). In Dagut’s own words: “The crucial question that arises is thus whether a metaphor can, strictly speaking, be translated as such, or whether it can only be “reproduced” in some way” (1976:24).

Other problematic aspects
Another problem is of course that metaphors are language, and language is culture. As Lomheim writes: “most words in a language have absorbed cultural aspects and historical experiences”. Most metaphors are thereby culture-bound, and can only be understood in direct translation by those sharing the same (or a closely related) language and/or culture. As pointed out by Gunilla Anderman (in a lecture given on 01/05/02), even the metaphor ‘The world is my oyster’, made more or less universal by William Shakespeare, may be difficult to understand in a community which does not have oysters. At other times, the same metaphor might exist with small cultural amendments. In England, pigs can fly; in Spain, donkeys can.

Approaches to the problem
As indicated in Dagut’s article, there seems to be “two diametrically opposed views” on the translatability of metaphors (1976:25). On the one hand, there are those who believe that metaphors are untranslatable (Nida, Vinay and Darbelnet seem to be representatives for this view), and on the other hand, there are those who find translating metaphors no problem and believe firmly in the word-for-word method (Kloepfer and Reiss).

However, there are also those who choose not to take a stand, as clearly demonstrated by the lack of theory in this field. Lomheim seems to take this approach. He mentions the problem in his book, but presents no opinion. Peter Newmark definitely takes a stand, which seems to be somewhere in between the two extremes. He has designed ‘A Diagram of Metaphors and Their Translations’ which looks like this:

1. Dead 1. Same image
2. Cliché 2. Different image
3. Standard 3. Reduce to sense
4. Original 4. Adapt images (extended metaphor)
5. (Metonym) 5. Sense plus image (Mozart method)
6. Simile (weakened metaphor)
7. Deletion (for redundant metaphor)

He adds: “Note that the two columns are independent of each other (the procedures do not directly relate to the types)” (1998:184).

This view appears to me very flexible, and also very sensible. As Newmark notes: “I think the first purpose of metaphor is to describe something more comprehensively, economically and usually more forcefully than is possible in literal language (1998:111). Dagut seems to agree when he says: “The truth is that the resemblances underlying metaphor (…) are largely “created” by the observing and classifying mind of the speaker, and are therefore as infinite as they are unpredictable” (1976:27).

The uniqueness of metaphors appears to be the one thing translation theorists can agree upon, and it seems a bit conceited to maintain that translating a phenomenon held to be so exceptional represents no challenge at all, and can be done by a simple word-for-word rendition. Nevertheless, the view that metaphors are untranslatable also seems a bit too extremist, and my above-mentioned example (“and pigs/donkeys can fly”) appears to contradict this fact. I readily admit that the words “pig” and “donkey” have different connotations, but in this context, the meaning the metaphor conveys ought to be more or less the same.

It seems apparent that the solution must lie somewhere in between the two opposed views, and Newmark’s diagram underpins this notion. In my opinion, language is so contextual that maintaining any view as to how something ought to be translated is futile. You must judge each utterance separately, and in its proper context before you can make a decision. Every use of language is unique.

Anderman, G. Lecture notes dated 01/05/02
Dagut, M. B. Can “Metaphor” Be Translated?, Babel, 1976
Lomheim, S. Omsetjingsteori, Universitetsforlaget, 1995
Newmark, P. Paragraphs on Translation, Multilingual Matters, 1993
Newmark, P. More Paragraphs on Translation, Multilingual Matters, 1998

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