Are Aesthetics a Criterion of a Good Translation?

By Stacey
Nov 23, 2013 · 3 min

When working in translation, aesthetic considerations are usually secondary to clarity and accuracy.

Are Aesthetics a Criterion of a Good Translation? | One Hour Translation

I’ve sometimes heard translations created by my colleagues described as ‘pretty.’ Translation pros will sometimes use this phrase when they feel that a translation has been done particularly skilfully in terms of style and language – in other words, when it is a pleasure to read.

This brings up the question of aesthetics in translation work, however: How important is it that your target text be ‘pretty?’ The answer is a little slippery in that it depends a great deal on the nature of the work you’re doing in the first place, but the short answer is that it usually doesn’t matter – or at least it doesn’t matter nearly as much as clarity and accuracy.

The Nature of the Work

However, the material you’re translating has a lot to do with how important aesthetics are in the translation. An obvious example would be a novel translation: While accuracy and fidelity to the original remain important, the style you employ is just as important to the perceived success of the work. Anyone who’s watched videos of terrible Japanese-to-English translations of video game scripts knows what a bad translation can do to an artistic experience.

Of course, when it comes to translation very frequently the readers of a translated novel or poem or play cannot read it in the original language, and therefore may not have any way of comparing your style to the original. They can still, however, enjoy your language choices, even if they are not completely accurate. So an artistic translation can succeed even if it isn’t very close to the original, in a way – and in such cases perhaps aesthetics is even more important than accuracy.

Accuracy Transcendent

However, in the vast majority of translation projects, accuracy and fidelity to the original in terms of meaning is paramount, and almost every client I’ve ever worked with would gladly trade pretty language for more accurate translations. There is no rule that says you can’t have both – but you must also consider the time factor. Most translation work is on a very tight schedule, and wordsmithing your target text so that it reads like a poem may be impressive, but if it takes you an extra week to accomplish, no one will be impressed – trust me.

On the other hand, a tiny amount of aesthetic sense in your translations is crucial, because your translations must be readable. If you’ve captured the information accurately but your sentences are so tortured that they are difficult to read, you’ve failed – clarity requires a bit of style. So while you can’t devote much time to it, you do need to incorporate a dash of aesthetic quality to your translation work.

The bottom line? Clarity always trumps aesthetics in translation. It’s almost always preferable to have a translation that is easy to read and understand than one that is ‘pretty’ – but there are always exceptions to every rule.

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