We Translate On Time

Is the Perfect Translation Attainable?

June 14th, 2019

In Ortega y Gasset's 'The Misery and Splendour of Translation', he provides a general idea about the nature of translation, what it encompasses and what problems translators often run into. He suggests translation is a utopian task and is never fully attainable, as the same idea cannot be achieved in a target language and there are different connotations in languages. Does Ortega y Gasset have an argument in questioning whether the perfect translation is attainable? Or is it possible to retain everything in a translation and maintain all nuances?

 Ortega y Gasset’s argument relies on the idea that a text can never be translated faithfully and with complete accuracy, since aspects of the text are adapted according to culture, grammar and vocabulary of the target language. This in turn leads to a combination of linguistic differences between the languages and the translator’s own stylistic approach. This can cause significant changes to the target translation. 

The issue of accuracy in translation often relates to the translator’s perception (of the text) and translating style. It is important to use idioms and context that are relevant to the target audience. The intended message often takes priority over the linguistic features of the text, and this may require the text to be adapted in translation to the current issues and events that affect the target audience.

Ortega y Gasset suggests that it is impossible to translate “word for word” as ‘languages are formed in different landscapes through different experiences’. Therefore, ‘the thing a Spaniard calls a bosque [forest] the German calls a wald’ may in fact be two different interpretations of a ‘forest’.

Translators are encouraged to consider the context surrounding the original text in order to obtain the perfect equivalence. Not only must the translator be aware of the intent of the target text, but they must also have an intuitive knowledge of the languages being used.

The “perfect” translation exists as an ideal; however, there is no one way to measure if the original text has been “perfectly” translated. The purpose of the target text will affect what type of “perfection” being aimed for, and translation techniques used to achieve the most optimal target text. Translations exist along a spectrum and have varying degrees of success. Each translation is subjective.

Therefore, translation is not about replicating exactly what the source text is saying, rather it is about transferring the original idea and creating something with resemblance.  A translation is not the original text, but it is a path towards the original. 


 Ortega y Gasset, J. (1992), ‘The Misery and the Splendor of Translation’ in Schulte, R., Biguenet, J., Theories of Translation: an Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 93-112. 

by Joshua Binfor

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