Hard as nails: Literature and translation today

Miguel Ceia

Untitled 141 Hard as nails: Literature and translation today‘Come down, or your food will be hard as nails’: I heard two English people explaining the meaning of this expression to an Italian. By the context it was more or less easy to understand what the expression meant, but adding the individual words, one after the other, would not aid its understanding.

Every time I come across idioms or idiomatic expressions I do not know, I always wonder how I would translate them. And if sometimes I actually find a good equivalent (any translation studies academic will be extremely angry with my usage of the word ‘equivalent’) in my native Portuguese, quite often I do not. Aside from poetry, with its rhymes and metric, the hardest things to translate are idioms and idiomatic expressions. They are contingent to a language and their cultural predicaments, and this makes them almost impossible to render in another language; there are no direct correspondents, just equivalents, approximations, deviations. It would not be by and large bold to state that any translation is impossible, as something written in one language will never be rendered as well, or as accurately (one more word I should not be using), in another.

Still, against all odds, people with different languages and cultures manage to understand one another. Not only in writing, but in speaking as well. The argument against is that academics in the field of translation fail because they are too technical; by focusing too much on how elements in paragraphs and sentences are rendered, they flatten words or ideas that have no correspondence in the target language. However, this analytical critique does not take into consideration the fact that people want to know and understand one another. They want to borrow and lend from each other’s culture.

Portugal, typically for a country with a very small literary output and a small number of readers, has resorted to works in translations. For some reasons, mainly political and cultural, many of the translations found in Portugal during my youth were mediated translations. Until very recently most of the great Russian writers, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were translated to Portuguese via French versions. I am assuming that no publisher resorts to this any more; however, the first translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin to Portuguese dates from 2006.

Translation and migrative cultures are in the genesis of comparative studies, or comparative literature. More than looking at one country or language alone, comparative studies tried to identify and study the relations between different literary outputs and how they have contributed to a literary and cultural build-up. Against academic resilience and publishing marketeers, comparative studies has taken root as an important discipline, defying instituted and institutional national and genre concepts.

The idea that lies behind this discipline is fairly simple: cultural expressions cannot be contained within political borders and time frames. Philip Roth, when visiting eastern-European writers in the early 1970s, noted the following: ‘It occurred to me that I work in a society where as a writer everything goes and nothing matters, while for the Czech writers I met in Prague, nothing goes and everything matters’. There are countless accounts of literary salons being held underground in communist countries, among many other totalitarian regimes, whose purposes were intellectual stimulus, knowledge, and sharing what was happening and being done in other countries. Despite many people’s efforts to enforce cultural repression and muzzle its dissemination, culture and literature do not abide by political borders or nationalistic interests.

Because, in the end, we are human, all too human.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Miguel Fernandes Ceia is a writer, critic and translator, an editorial assistant at Writers’ Hub, and a contributor to Culture Wars. He is producing the Battle of Ideas session The New International? Literature in an age of ‘globish’, organised in partnership with English Pen and in association with Free Word, which takes place at the Free Word Centre on Thursday 20 October.

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  • Ewa Erdmann

    There have been numerous theories on what translation is and what it is not, especially with regard to translating literature. Most of the theorists, George Steiner in particular, considered translation an art in contrast to science. Steiner claimed that languages are tools designed by humans to maintain secrecy and cultural isolation, therefore real translation is impossible: the original meaning is always lost and the translated text is the creation of the translator (new author) tainted with their beliefs and cultural background.
    With reference to Steiner’s theory, idiomatic expressions appear as powerful tools for guarding cultural territory of each language, and perhaps this is why they tend to be considered ‘untranslatable’.
    In one of my recent blog posts (, I argued that we should not translate idioms but rather find one that is already established and used in the target language and has the closest meaning to the idiom in the source language.

  • The_Lyre_of_Orpheus

    Even people who grow up in the same household don’t speak the same language.

    Of course, every translation passes the text through a filter; a colouriser, but the so does a review of a text, even if you have already read the text before you read the review – somebody’s passing opinion of a text, even if you disagree, adds weight or colour to some part, even in relief.

    A second reading does the same, as we are not the same today as yesterday.

    It is fair enough to point out that a translation is not the same text; and by extension, not the same poem, essay, or novel. But to over-emphasise this in translations between different languages is to miss something at the heart of the text, which is actually the mind of the reader.

  • sergey buglak

    Literary translation  has enlightening mission to  share cultural values.We can speak about  tha battle of ideas,butnot about The Culture war.each culture has iits own self-value.Good translation  has maximum approximation to the realities of the taget language.However,the article possess good ideas  

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