Is Translation another word for Reception?


Translations are rather similar to generation gaps: for as long as there have been different languages that have necessitated communication, there have been translations. As soon as a new generation is born, a gap forms between them and their predecessors, and later another gap will grow between them and their successors. In both respects, the words that are used to communicate and the ideas that they convey are not going to be identical. In between an original piece of work and a translation, there has to be an act of interpretation: an attempt to make the original intelligible to the recipient. Consequently, is translation actually reception?

Defining 'Reception'

Before going anywhere, we need to clarify what is meant by the term 'reception' in this context. Over the past twenty years, reception theory is a branch of academia that has grown in popularity, making it a complex topic in its own right. At one end of the spectrum is the idea that an author will have imparted an essence into his or her text at the time of writing, and reading will uncover it. Opposing this is the theory that a text is virtually meaningless until it has been read: meaning depends on the reader/translator.

The approach that I am adopting here is based more on the reader/translator than on the text or the author. It is going to consider how the experiences, beliefs, opinions and ideals of the reader/translator will influence his or her reading of a text.

Two Possible Arguments

In Gadamer’s opinion, a text only assumes meaning at the moment of reading. The original intention of the author is lost to space and time. Only the reader/translator, and his or her approach to the text, is important. Here, translation becomes virtually synonymous with reception: the translation will exist only as it has been received. Of course, if the translator is a different person to the reader, then the text is going to be received differently yet again!

A more moderate examination of the relationship between translation and reception might involve considering the interaction of original author and reader/translator through the medium of the text. Following the author’s task of laying out his or her opinions, views or intentions in the text, it falls to the reader/translator to read, interpret and describe in another language these positions. Interpretation then becomes the pivotal word; it signifies how both parties have their own role in the meaning and understanding of the text.

Context and Culture

If you believe that there is a relationship between the reader/translator and the author, then context is something that becomes important. What were the external influences that had their part to play in the author's composition? Understanding the author's circumstances will help to understand what they wrote, just as the reader/translator's experiences are going to affect how he or she reads something.

Closely related to this idea of context is the culture barrier that might exist between the original text and the author, and the reception and the reader/translator. It is conceivable that the difference in culture between the author and reader/translator is so vast that a relationship cannot be forged between the two. There is no common point at which a connection can be made that enables a mutual understanding to grow. This inability to receive a text would mean that a translation would be difficult, if not impossible, because in addition to translating the words, there has to be a translation of the meaning. Alternatively, problems may arise owing to misunderstanding; the reader/translator might misconstrue what the original author wrote, rather than not having the cultural ability to understand him. Translation is largely dependent on a meeting point of the perceptions of the reader/translator and the intentions of the author.

Genre and Audience

Of course, translation is not just about context and culture, but the genre of a piece can also affect how it is translated. Whilst some translators prefer to render a text as directly and literally as possible from one language to another, however clumsy it might be, others favour a more 'free' approach, where the emphasis is placed on generating a fluid — but slightly more liberal — translation. The personal preferences of the translator are about more than how he or she has received it. Terms that are often mentioned in conjunction with translation are faithful and accurate, yet to what is the translation supposed to be faithful or accurate? A translation might give an accurate linguistic equivalent of the original, but the sensory feel of the words has not been successfully conveyed. Conversely, in presenting a translation that relates the feeling of the original piece, some of the direct meaning might be lost. It has long been recognised that a perfect translation is impossible, but that a suitable balance between meaning and feel can be struck.

Linked to the style of translation is the intended audience of the translation. Classical texts are not the preserve of classicists alone; historians, English students and writers (to mention just a few) also refer to them. Consequently, the style of the translation might have to vary to satisfy the needs of the different users. A historian might require a close, precise translation in order that he or she might be able to examine a text for its content, rather than its literary style. A writer might prefer a freer, literary translation that conveys the artistry of the original, rather than its scholarly intention. The reception of the translator is working in conjunction with the perceived reception of the intended reader; there is a point in between these two, where the appropriate linguistic jump must be made. Of course, there does seem to be a mid-point in translation, where the balance is achieved between close and free. The aim of the translation is to produce a work that reads naturally in the receiving language, giving a suitable reflection of the original, facilitating an understanding of the text in a language other than that in which it was originally composed.

Take four translations...

Translations of poetry allow, perhaps, for the greatest divergence of style between literal and free. Not only must the metre of the poem be considered, but the translator's reception of the piece is going to heavily influence how he or she transforms the words from one language to another. Below are four translations of Martial's Epigram III.43, in addition to the original Latin. Although I have offered my opinions on the different translations, these are of course my opinions; any other reader might see things differently.

Mentiris iuvenem tinctis, Laetine, capillis,
Tam subito corvus, qui modo cycnus eras.
Non omnes fallis; scit te Prosperina canum:
Personam capiti detrahet illa tuo.

Thou dy’st thy haire to seeme a younger man,
And turn’st a crow, that lately wert a swan.
All are not cousen’d; hels queene knows thee grey.
She’ll take the visor from your head away.

Thomas May’s version could be considered a close rendering of the original. He has moved away slightly from the Latin convention of the epigram and towards to English with the introduction of a rhyming scheme, but maintains the four line ideal. A notable word that May uses in his translation is 'visor', with respect to 'personam'. It is possible that this is a reflection of the time at which May was writing, the early seventeenth century. A visor was of course part of the helmet of a coat of arms, covering the face. More than just concealing the face of the wearer, it also works neatly with the idea that battle is a young man’s occupation, and that Laetinus is attempting to preserve his youth. Whilst maintaining the spirit of Martial’s work, May also succeeds in presenting his version with some relevance to the time at which he was writing.

Why should’st thou try to hide thyself in youth?
Impartial Proserpine beholds the truth,
And laughing at so fond and vain a task,
Will strip thy hoary noddle of its mask.

Joseph Addison appears to have surrendered mention of the swan and the crow in order to retain a semblance of the Latin metre. The epigram is translated in four lines, and the language used seems to give an impression of the humour that Martial intended to include in his original. 'Hoary noddle' is perhaps not what was generally used to refer to a greying gentleman in pleasant early eighteenth century society! Here, Addison has adapted his translation to relate to his intended audience, constructing it so that the comic element can be received.

Thou that not many months ago
Wast white as swan, or driven snow,
Now blacker far than Aesop’s crow,
Thanks to thy wig, set’st up for Beau.
Faith Harry, thou’rt i’the wrong box,
Old age these vain endeavours mocks,
And time that knows thou’st hoary locks,
Will pluck thy mask off with a pox.

A translation that could be regarded as moving closer to a modern interpretation and away from the idea of a close translation is Thomas Brown’s late seventeenth century version. Rhyme features significantly in this working, but in order to achieve this, the translator has been forced to make his own inclusions to the epigram, which are not found in the original. 'Driven snow' is not part of Martial’s work, but without it, Brown cannot complete the rhyming scheme of the first four lines of his translation. 'Aesop’s crow' is also an interesting choice. Aesop has been used in order to place the necessary number of beats in the line to conform to the rhythm, but why use Aesop? Is this, perhaps, a reference to the epigram’s classical origin? Although Aesop was Greek and Martial Roman, it does give an indication that the epigram was not originally from Brown’s time. The addressee of the epigram has become Harry, rather than Laetinus, which is also an indication of Brown’s choice to pull the epigram nearer towards his contemporaries, rather than pull his audience closer to the original. Brown has presented the world with his own ideas of how Martial works in a time other than his own; it is a translation based quite heavily on how Brown received the original.

You are trying to recapture lost youth in dying your hair, Laetinus,
Suddenly you are a crow, when recently you were a swan.
You cannot fool everybody; Prosperina knows your truth:
She will peel the wig from your head.

The final version is my own translation. This was a useful exercise, forcing me to consider how I receive and interpret texts myself and also experiencing the difficulty in choosing the correct word to express exactly what I thought that Martial meant. I chose the phrase 'recapture lost youth' because it seemed to be an idea that Martial was attempting to express and it was something that the modern reader could understand. Time is a universal enemy, which is fought by all. The order in which crow and swan should be placed presented me with a surprising problem. In terms of rhythm and tone, I could not decide if I preferred the gentle swan leading into the harsh crow, or the menacing crow preceding the elegant swan. Eventually, I allowed Martial to dictate my course — this was his work, after all — thus I placed crow before swan. In choosing to translate 'canum' freely, as 'your truth', rather than 'hoary' or 'white-haired', I saw it as referring to the truth behind the deception. The reader, and Prosperina, knows what Laetinus is really like, and it emphasised his attempts to conceal it. Translating 'detrahet' as 'peel' was based on the idea of an actor peeling off a mask. The dye is, ultimately, only a mask, which will be removed from him. It seemed to fit in the context of the poem. Wig was the translation of 'personam', being an appropriate mask for the hair.

My translation is clearly dependent on the combination of my own reception of the poem and my choice of words to express my interpretation. Using the phrase 'recapture lost youth' was something that has arisen out of the time in which I live. On reading the epigram, Martial implanted in my head the idea of a wig or mask being peeled from somebody by using the word 'detrahet', hence I translated it as 'peel'. This translation has been a combination of the visions that Martial succeeded in conveying, and a respect for the originality of Martial himself.

Authenticity and Originality

The further from the original text that the translator stands, the greater the possibility that the reworking will come to be viewed as an independent work of art: a somewhat controversial concept. It can be argued that removing the translation from the original context and format deprives it of its spirit that the original author put into it. The text becomes devoid of its original meaning and as a consequence, it can be misconstrued and misinterpreted. Furthermore, it can also be argued that the translator has in fact manipulated and abused the original. Of course, this can be countered by arguing that the relevance of the text is dependent on it being accessible to the reader; only by bringing the text closer to the reader is it possible to make it comprehensible to all. Perhaps what is most important is that any translation can be misconstrued or manipulated, the author’s intention can always be distorted. Translation is an act of interpretation and the original author’s ideal can never be fully realised by a reader.

Cultural Maturity

The intimate link between translation and reception — particularly when associated with a translation being able to stand alone as a work of art — is further strengthened by the idea that a language must be sufficiently advanced in order to receive a translation. Unless a language is able to make the appropriate linguistic correlations and necessary cultural leaps, it cannot receive a translation. Without an ability to identify with the original author, or the society in which he was living, a language could not render a suitable translation. Reception is indicative of a cultural advancement, and translation can only come with this maturity. This could perhaps be most successfully explained in terms of idioms, or words that have no direct translation. Despite there being no direct equivalent for words such as virtus or polis, English is able to explain them by using a series of words, it has the cultural development to make sense of them.

Translation can also go deeper than rendering a text from one language to another. Language is a continually evolving entity; an English text written in 1850 would have been constructed differently to one composed in 2000. Consequently, although the 1850 text may be intelligible to a 2000 reader, this person may 'translate' the text in his or her mind into something more consistent with their own patterns of speech. The implications for this on translations from different languages are significant. A translation can never be fixed, whether this is owing to the evolution of language, or of culture, time is always going to play its role. This is evident in the linguistic differences between the four translations of the Martial epigram. Furthermore, translation might encompass more than text-to-text alterations; it could also include text-to-image renderings. For example, on reading an evocative piece of poetry that conjures a vivid picture in the mind’s eye, the reader has, effectively, translated the words of the text into the images of his or her imagination. My own translation of Prosperina peeling the wig from Laetinus’ head illustrates this point. Once this image had been formed in my mind on reading the Latin, I faced the challenge of translating the image that was in my mind's eye into English. The word translation can include an image-to-text aspect, too.

Building Bridges

To further the notion that translations are similar to generation gaps, which require bridging, another image relevant to the relationship between translation and reception is that of building bridges. A translation is a bridge between the original text and how it is received, passing over the waters of time. The translator stands on the bridge, at any point between a close rendering of the text and a modern reworking.

To say that translation is another word for reception would perhaps not do justice to either term. Translation is a complex and involved process, with different aspects and considerations. Translation does not necessarily refer to text-to-text or language-to-language processes, either. Reception is equally complicated and diverse. Whether or not the translator intends to produce a close, literal rendering or a complete reworking, the original text first has to pass through him or her as a medium. At this point, the translator is going to be affected by myriad factors. These will include the language that he or she speaks, his or her own cultural background, beliefs and ideals, an agenda that he or she might wish to convey via the translation. Furthermore, there will be what the translator perceived the author as wishing to say, and the affects and influences of the author’s background. After the translator has received the original text, he or she then faces the challenge of transferring these images, ideas and meanings into words. After that, the translation is going to rely on the reception of the reader. However the translator has expressed his or her version of the text, the text is going to face yet another wave of reception. Ultimately, the process of translation is open to interpretation; the point where the translator stands on the bridge of translation, between original text and reception, is the moment of interpretation. Every reader is going to experience a text individually, and a translator’s expression of this experience will also be individual. Reception is inherent to translation, but is not is not the only aspect, especially, expression is just as influential as reception.


  • Martial: Martial in English, J Sullivan and A Boyle (eds), Penguin, London, 1996.
  • J Biguenet and R Schulte: The Craft of Translation, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989.
  • L Hardwick: Translating Words, Translating Cultures, Duckworth, London, 2000.
  • R Holub: Reception Theory: a critical introduction, Routledge, London, 1985.
  • C Martindale: Redeeming the Text, CUP, 1993.
  • T Savory: The Art of Translation, Jonathan Cape, London, 1957 (1968).
  • J Taylor, E McMorran and G Leclercq (eds): Translation Here and There, Now and Then , Elm Bank Publications, Exeter, 1996.
  • A Motluk: “You are what you speak”, New Scientist, 30/xi/2002.

Thanks also to Heschelian, who provided invaluable advice when writing the original essay on which this was based.

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