What it is to Translate

I’m crossing my fingers and making another attempt at reading Calvin’s Institutes, this time the Henry Beveridge translation, which seems to actually be easier to read than the Ford Lewis Battles translation. I’m not sure if this is because Beveridge was a better translator than Battles, or if the publishers at Henderickson (whose edition I’m using) decided to provide the extra service of inserting more periods. Either way, the sentences are easier to read, because they’re shorter.

I come, however, across this passage on translating from the Preface of the original translation by Thomas Norton:

For I dared not presume to warrant myself to have his meaning without his words. And they that know what it is to translate well and faithfully, especially in matters of religion, do know that not only the grammatical construction of words suffices, but the very building and order to observe all advantages of vehemence or grace, by placing or accent of words, makes much to the true setting forth of a writer’s mind.

In the end, I rested upon this determination, to follow the words so near as the phrase of the English tongue would suffer me. …

Norton has been talking about how terse Calvin’s Latin original is. Calvin packed a lot of meaning into the original, and Norton found that the goal of putting out the same meaning in English required either a lot more words or a book that was a lot harder to read. His solution was to hue close to a word-for-word translation.

But what catches me is is phrase that “those that know what it is to translate well and faithfully” know that following the precise word order is important. Apparently the folks who prefer to translate in paraphrase know no such thing. Recent translation research proves otherwise.

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