Last night, our Patristics class discussed The Life of Antony, a text that proved rather interesting–to say the least. Originally written by Athanasius of Alexandria, the text was later translated into Latin by Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century Christian monk and ascetic. Evagrius provides a short introduction to the text with an interesting comment regarding his translation method:
A literal translation made from one language to another conceals the meaning, like rampant grasses which suffocate the crops. As long as the text keeps to the cases and turns of phrase, it is forced to move in an indirect way by means of lengthy circumlocutions, and it finds it hard to give a clear account of something which could be succinctly expressed. I have tried to avoid this in translating, as you requested, the life of the blessed Antony, and I have translated in such a way that nothing should be lacking from the sense although something may be missing from the words. Some people try to capture the syllables and letters, but you must seek the meaning.”
(page 7, Early Christian Lives trans. and ed. by Carolinne White)
It seems translation has always proved to be a tricky thing. Evagrius pinpoints a common problem with ‘literal’ word-for-word translations: they often lack readability! On top of that, a ‘literal’ translation, according to Evagrius, doesn’t just muddle the meaning, it “conceals” it!
Where does the responsibility of the translator lie? In trying to capture (as best as possible) the exact grammar and syntax of a text? Or, in clearly communicating (as best as possible) the meaning in the text (as the translator understands it)?