What Role Does Creativity Play in Translating?

By Chiara Grassilli
In Writing and Translation
Jul 28th, 2014

Creativity and Translation


A common misunderstanding is that translation is a very straightforward process with very little input from the translator. In effect, that the translator is merely a conduit through which one language is transformed into another. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A skilled translator injects a healthy dose of creativity into their task. The act of translating and the creative process are virtually inseparable, a fact that is especially true in literary translations.

Why Do Translators Need to Be Creative?

Creativity is the key by which a skilled translator deals with some of the most common problems in translating. Often, a translator will be torn between representing form versus content. Creativity is the thing that can find a harmonious balance between the two, and the whole process becomes more art than science. In addition, translations should not be literal. Rather, they need to convey the full meaning of the original text, which includes cultural context. Some languages have idioms and sayings that don’t exist in other languages. Many of these are based on cultural cues which may not even exist in the culture of the target language.

One of the most difficult translation tasks can be translating poetry. A straight, literal translation will simply not suffice, as there are issues such as rhyming, imagery, rhythm, and flow to consider. The Dao De Jing, which is, by some accounts, the second most translated text in the world – after the Holy Bible – is a perfect example of this. The original Chinese text is written like poetry, with certain rhythms and rhymes. It also conveys a very esoteric and elusive message. Translating that into another language while maintaining every aspect of the original is a daunting task. To see many of the creative, yet different, interpretations, you can look at that Tao Teh Ching Comparison Project, which has a side-by-side comparison of 29 different translations.


How Creative is the Right Amount of Creative?

There are many degrees of creativity, and too little or too much can lead to undesirable outcomes. Too little creativity can result in a bland translation that is possibly inaccurate in tone, whereas too much creativity risks losing the original intent of the text and replacing it with the translator’s own intent. An ideal translation would use the “Goldilocks Effect” – not too much creativity and not too little, but just the right amount. Of course, pulling this off successfully requires mastery of the target language and very good knowledge of the source language. In addition, it requires excellent understanding of the culture associated with both languages. Therefore, when you are translating, you should keep in mind that it isn’t just about the words. A masterful translator needs to both translate the word and also interpret the cultural context, as well.


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About "" Has 112 Posts

Since an early age I have been passionate about languages. I hold a Master's degree in Translation and Interpreting, and I have worked as a freelance translator for several years. I specialize in Marketing, Digital Marketing, Web and Social Media. I love blogging and I also run the blog www.italiasocialmedia.com

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