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Accuracy of Meaning vs. Fluidity of Expression

When it comes to translating a piece of work from one language to another, it came to my mind that sometimes, the translator has to sacrifice the natural fluidity of the way a work is expressed for accuracy of its meaning, or vice versa.

To be more clear, take for example a song. Let's say that the original language of the song is Japanese and I'm trying to translate it to English so that I can sing the English cover of it. One cannot simply translate word by word and expect the same flow of the song to match the tune as it did with the original language. Different words or phrases may have to be used, which may manipulate the song's inherent meaning and overall the accuracy of the actual translation. A line of the song that may have been intended to sound prideful may sound innocent. In this case, I do feel as though some aspects of the song's meaning must be sacrificed so that the song is expressed as naturally as the Japanese version was. With TV shows that are dubbed into another language, accuracy of the translation and accuracy of mouth movements are very important, which can often pose as a huge problem and sometimes even leads to mistranslations.

These thoughts of how translations should be approached arose when I was reading a poem I recently finished and I had wanted to translate it from English to French. However, when attempting to do so, I realized that the flow of the poem that was present in its original form was not present in its French form. This mostly had to do with the fact that I was trying to create an "exact translation" of the poem. Especially since I utilize a lot of enjambments in my poem, the flow seems a bit "broken" in French.

If this is hard to understand, then I will use an example. Take a part of my poem for instance:

Hand me the child who sat by my side

Washed away with autumn breezes on a school courtyard…

French translation:

Donnez-moi l'enfant qui a assis de mon côté

Qui était passé avec le vent d'automne sur une cour d'école...

The French translation is very close to the original English version, although, in the French form I don't get much of a flowy, nostalgic feel that I had intended that part to have in the English form. I thought about completely rewriting that phrase in French without relying much on the original lines, but even though it may feel more of the way I wanted, the meaning behind the translation could be twisted or just come out completely wrong.

I believe all of this depends on whether you as the original writer really cares about the way a work is expressed or how accurate the translation is to the original work. For me, I care a bit more of how my poems/stories are expressed, since poetry has to do with how it makes the reader feel. But, I fear that when I do translate the inherent meaning will be gone, which is an important factor of poetry. This is a bit different for people who translate things that don't belong to them, where one has to make sure that the correct message is conveyed and that it flows in the same way the original version did.

To avoid this, I'm thinking about just writing my poems in French instead of translating. Though, despite my use of the poem example, this post was really meant for general thoughts when it came to translations and what should really be focused on. Should translators focus more on how fluid and natural the expression is through a work (book, poem, show, song, etc.) or on how accurate the translation is to the original language?

July 23, 2017



This is a topic that arose many times when Immersion was a part of Duolingo. My own opinion is that accuracy vs flow depends on the purpose of the translation. For example, if a person is translating a legal document, some fluidity may need to be sacrificed for accuracy; on the other hand, if the work is literature of any sort, I think fluidity becomes more important - retaining the "feel" of the piece would be vital.


Another interesting poem that this happened with was Ma mignonne and a guy actually wrote a fairly big book called ton beau du mariot in which he collected and analysised the translation attempts of his friends, collegues and students.

link to the poem and a few translations : http://www.clementmarot.com/MaMignonne.htm


Absolutely, and this is something you're going to encounter whenever you see translations or try to translate yourselves. A big part of this, at least in my opinion, is that languages are not simply "cat" vs. "chat/chatte" -- they are their own ways of seeing the world, their own ways of thinking, and many times the two languages you're trying to translate to/from are proverbial 'apples and oranges' -- they simply don't line up. Add to that cultural expressions and idioms which mostly don't make a lot of sense and you have a recipe for translation disaster (if nothing else, it sounds clumsy.)

I had the same experience with a Brazilian song, trying to translate it to English. An English recording exists but the English is absolutely butchered and makes no sense, besides not flowing and not bearing any semblance to the original song, notwithstanding having the same melody... It starts off "Eu estou aqui." I am here. Guess what the English version says instead? "Take care of me." If that had been the intention of the song it would've said "Cuide de mim." and not "Eu estou aqui." Simple, but still annoying.

Or take for example an old Spanish song that I was trying to explain to someone who doesn't speak a lot of Spanish. It's a rather odd poetic song but it's catchy. It begins: Me llaman el desparecido, cuando llega ya se ha ido. Volando vengo volando voy, de prisa, de prisa al rumbo perdido.

Translate that! OK I'm going to give it a shot and then criticize myself (for something I can't control).

They call me the disappeared (one) When it arrives it has already gone. Flying I come flying I go, hurriedly, hurriedly to the lost course.

That's not so bad in English but I still have a couple translation issues.

  1. Desparecido = disappeared but we don't use this word as a potential name or renaming for a person in English. So to make it sound a little more natural I added the word "one" -- I am the disappeared one. But that sounds clumsy. Perhaps vanished? But that adds a different feeling. I am the one who disappeared? That alters the sentence structure, and I prefer clumsy over changing something.
  2. Ya se ha ido. Reflexive "se" constructions have no counterpart in English. "It itself has already gone" is not an option because reflexive pronouns in English serve to amplify meaning and stress parts of sentences. That's great but they are also not at all colloquial in English which is the "feel" of this song. The last line translates nicely.

What about words that don't exist in other languages? Like "saudades" in Portuguese?

If you want to see translation issues, watch a movie subtitled or lyrics translated to a song.


Seems to me songs are rarely "translated" in any normal sense of the term. A new song is written with similar content and words that fit the music, the last point being the most important criterion. Compare all the versions of "Let It Go" for instance. It can be quite amusing to watch the many versions where people have included the other languages' lyrics and a translation of them back into English. Some are so different from the English original they could give the entire movie a different feel, I'd think.


Sometimes you have to sacrifice one for the other when translating. Sometimes I'll write poems, and I found that translations do no good. If I think a poem sounds better in Spanish, I'll write it in Spanish. Why? Because it rhymes better or has more rhythm than it's English counterpart. There's also the issue of things being lost in translation.

The Japanese phrase いただきます (itadakimasu) is common to says before a meal. It literally means "I receive this food" and it's polite. It's so important to say that many Japanese people will say it with no one around. As an Anime fan, I get disappointed to watch a dub and see that the closest translation to it is "let's eat" or "thanks for the food", and I sort of laugh a bit when people compare it to Christians blessing a meal by praying and saying "amen", not because I think it's funny, but because I know many Japanese aren't doing it in a religious context like Christians. I mean, if you have to think of the two phrases (いただきます& "amen" before a meal) as synonymous, I won't say you're wrong because for a lot of people that's how they have to think of it to understand, and it's not wrong because both phrases are polite in a cultural context and show you are thankful for the food. I just think it's more meaningful to analyze the culture without assumptions than to compare it to others. Both the Japanese talking about receiving the food and the Christians blessing their meal are polite and important things done in a context that is unique to the understanding of that cultural group. Comparing them won't make you appreciate the other more, because you're taking one thing out of context and lumping it into a different context and understanding. This is why you can't learn a language well without learning the cultures behind it.

Things like that are what makes good translators rare, and honestly even they know that at times the context or meaning has to be skewed a bit for other cultures to appreciate it without needing to learn a second language.


Finding the balance between these two aspects, accuracy to the original text and fluidity in the target language, is what makes the science of translation into an art.

There is no correct answer as to where the right balance is nor will the balance be the same in every instance nor between any two language pairs. Sometimes that balance will be simple and obvious but just as often that balance will be obscure, tenuous and arcane. The only consistency is that there is always a need for that balance.

[deactivated user]

    A Finnish friend of mine with whom I discuss politics and philosophy bumps into this a lot while trying to explain Finnish sayings. One of them had to do with the civil war era of Finland and he says it is a phrase that flows like a figure of speech there but it was, "Whenever you see a kid in a Stalin shirt he is middle class." Any Fins wanna tell me if this is still commonly used? He said it was around in his father's time and he is in his early twenties, but his dad seems to be into his fifties or sixties. If it is ever still used, does it have any idiomatic meaning or flow?

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