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English-to-English translation

It’s not just for Chaucer (or Mad Max) anymore. Peter Frase writes:

It’s a shame that we neglect to re-translate older works into English merely because they were originally written in English. Languages change, and our reactions to words and formulations change. This is obvious when you read something like Chaucer, but it’s true to a more subtle degree of more recent writings. There is a pretty good chance that something written in the 19th century won’t mean the same thing to us that it meant to its contemporary readers. Thus it would make sense to re-translate Huckleberry Finn into modern language, in the same way we periodically get new translations of Homer or Dante or Thomas Mann. This is a point that applies equally well to non-fiction and social theory: in some ways, English-speaking sociologists are lucky that our canonical trio of classical theorists-Marx, Weber, and Durkheim-all wrote in another language. The most recent translation of Capital is eminently more readable than the older ones-and I know I could have used a modern English translation of Talcott Parsons when I was studying contemporary theory.

Now, one might respond to this by saying that writing loses much in translation, and that some things just aren’t the same unless you read them in the original un-translated form. And that’s probably true. But it would still be good to establish the “English-to-English translation” as a legitimate category . . .

Good point. I’m hoping someone will translate Bayesian Data Analysis into English. Half the time, I can’t be sure what they’re trying to say.


  1. marcel says:

    And what about the U.S. Constitution, for all you originalists out there?

  2. K? O'Rourke says:

    I _believe_ I can translate a fair bit of BDA into pictures.

    Plots of surfaces and marginal curves.

    Good question as how that might or might not clarify what they're trying to say…

    I'll try to put an example together some Saturday afternoon.


  3. Radford Neal says:

    Chaucer needs to be translated, as it's hard for someone without knowledge of Middle English to make much sense of it at all, and subtleties are certainly lost. By the time one gets to Shakespeare, however, all one needs is some footnotes on vocabulary changes. As for nineteenth century works, there's really no problem at all. Take the Gettysburg Address, for instance. The only thing that might need a footnote is that "score" can mean "twenty", though that's actually still a current usage. There have certainly been some changes in language in the last 150 years, but they're of the same magnitude as differences among major dialects today. Part of being literate is managing to cope with such differences.

  4. Mark Palko says:

    Frase leaves out the fundamental point (not just in this excerpt but in the original post). The evolution of European languages slowed greatly in the period from around 1450 to 1750 with the spread of printing and the introduction of dictionaries and textbooks on grammar.

    When we 'translate' anything written in English in the past two to three hundred years we are simply rewriting to conform to modern tastes. It would been like digitally retouching Rubens to make his models skinnier.

  5. David says:

    Mark, that is a regularly stated belief, but I've seen no evidence to support it. Phylo-linguistic analyses (eg Atkinson and Gray) tend to find that a model with a fairly constant rate of change fits core word data pretty well and there is certainly no consistent signal of the rate of change increasing or decreasing.

    One could come up with reasons that rate of language change should either increase or decrease with increased literacy but they are moot if no change in the rate is actually occurring.

  6. Jeremy Miles says:

    What about translating British English to American English? As someone who has moved from the UK to the US, I'm kind of aware of this.

    Questionnaires to measure attitudes, etc, in university students might say "Do your professors …". A professor in the UK is (broadly) equivalent to a full professor, so the majority of what an American would call a professor are lecturers.

    I was factor analysing a (US) scale of personality adjectives a few years ago. One of the items is 'touchy' – for American students, this loads on a neuroticism factor, for British students (at least mine) it loads on agreeable, because touchy means 'tactile'.

    There's a children's book called "Room on the broom" (which is great, by the way, written by the people who wrote/drew 'The Gruffalo'). It's written in rhyme. There's a bit: "the dragon drew closer, licking his lips, "tonight maybe I'll have witch without chips'". But a chip in the UK is a fry in the US. It was changed to fries, but that meant the whole verse had to be rewritten to make the rhyme work. Is that a bad thing? Probably not.

    So should we translate adult books to make sure that the meaning is the same? Probably not, but I can see why you might.

    However, some more random thoughts:

    One of my favorite authors is Douglas Coupland – but I sometimes worry that so much of the meaning in his books is tied into current events that it would be hard to know what it meant in the future. In Microserfs, the characters judge how well companies in Silicon Valley are doing by counting the Lexi (=Lexuses) in the parking lots. In 50 or 100 years time, will people understand the cultural significance of a Lexus? Thalidomide plays an important role in another book – will people remember Thalidomide (in the same way) in 100 years time? Someone works in Staples and goes on a date at Denny's in another book. Staples and Denny's won't mean the same thing in the future. (And Denny's probably won't mean much many people from other countries).

    But then if they don't remember, should we translated these terms into contemporary ones so that they do understand? Probably not.

  7. statc says:

    since we are on the topics of teaching and academics. The ETS is offering 50% off on GRE test, really? see here

  8. Noni Mausa says:

    When I was still an office worker, I sometimes tried to translate management memos into English (yes, had some time on my hands…) Often, I found that they were written in such a way that you couldn't tell what they meant, so making them clearer was an impossible task.

  9. Kieran says:

    Jonathan Bennett's Early Modern Texts is a great resource along just these lines. E.g., The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Leviathan, etc.

  10. Phil says:

    I just read a book about Francis Walsingham (Queen Elizabeth's spymaster) that included a fair number of quotes from letters written back then. The book's author didn't "translate" the quotes but he did regularize and modernize the spelling. In a note, he said that people in the mid-1500s thought of words as being represented by sounds, and writing as a way of recording the sounds. There wasn't really a "right" or "wrong" way to spell something, you could spell it any way you wanted as long as your spelling conjured up the right sound in the reader's mind. So, he says, people would sometimes spell the same word different ways in the same letter, or even in the same sentence. The author thinks that when we read those original letters today, we can't help but think of the writers as being unschooled and unsophisticated — because hey, they don't even know how to spell! — plus the writing is distracting for us to decipher. I think this makes a lot of sense.

    As far as I remember, the author only changed spelling, he didn't replace words, but I could certainly make an argument for doing the latter as well. Some words have changed meanings since the mid-1500s, and other usages have become obsolete (for instance, we no longer "practice upon" someone).