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Sense-for-sense translation is the oldest norm for translating. It fundamentally means translating the meaning of each whole sentence before moving on to the next, and stands in normative opposition to word-for-word translation (also known as literal translation), which means translating the meaning of each lexical item in sequence.
The coiner of the term "sense-for-sense" was Jerome in his "Letter to Pammachius", where he said that, "except of course in the case of Holy Scripture, where even the syntax contains a mystery," he translates non verbum e verbo sed sensum de sensu: not word for word but sense for sense.
However, arguably Jerome is here not inventing the concept of sense-for-sense translation, which most scholars believe was invented by Cicero in De Oratore ("On the Orator"), when he said that in translating from Greek to Latin "I did not think I ought to count them out to the reader like coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were."
And he is certainly not even coining the term "word-for-word," but borrowing it from Cicero as well, or possibly from Horace, who warned the writer interested in retelling ancient tales in an original way Nec verbo verbum curabit reddere / fidus interpretes: "not to try to render them word for word [like some] faithful translator."
Some have read that passage in Horace differently:
- Boethius in 510 CE and Johannes Scotus Eriugena in the mid-9th century read it to mean that translating literally is "the fault/blame of the faithful interpreter/translator," and fear that they have incurred it; Burgundio of Pisa in the 1170s and Sir Richard Sherburne in 1702 recognize that Horace is advising not translators but original writers, but still assume that he is calling all translation literal; and John Denham in 1656 and André Lefevere in 1992 take Horace to be warning translators against translating literally.
In his 1680 preface to his translation of Ovid's Epistles, John Dryden borrowed the ancient terms metaphrase for word-for-word translation and paraphrase for sense-for-sense translation. He takes the opposition from Quintilian's 95 CE Institutio Oratoria ("Institutes of Oratory"); Quintilian himself borrowed the former term from Philo Judaeus in his 20 BCE De vita Mosis ("The Life of Moses").
Dryden's third term is imitation, by which he means something like what Horace counseled: making a traditional story your own by not translating it faithfully (either word-for-word or sense-for-sense). Not all commentators are so careful with these terms, however. Many have drawn a simple binary opposition between "free" translation and "literal" or "direct" or "close" translation, meaning by the former something that vaguely covers the entire range from sense-for-sense translation to free imitation and by the latter something like word-for-word translation.
Eugene A. Nida's terms dynamic and formal equivalence have also been taken to mean essentially the same thing as sense-for-sense and word-for-word translation, and Nida did often seem to use them this way; but his original definition of dynamic equivalence was rhetorical. The idea was that the translator should translate so that the effect of the translation on the target reader is roughly the same as the effect of the source text once was on the source reader.
Lawrence Venuti's concept of domestication or "fluency," too, is intended to capture something like the ancient notion of sense-for-sense translation; like Nida's distinction between dynamic and formal equivalence, however, Venuti's distinction is fundamentally rhetorical in nature, focused not on the formal structure of syntax ("segmentation") but on the relationship between the translator and the target readership. Like Friedrich Schleiermacher's distinction between "bringing the author to the reader" (domestication) and "taking the reader to the author" (foreignization), from which Venuti derived it, the distinction between domestication and foreignization is a hermeneutical one aimed at an ethics and politics of translation, and thus quite far from the linguistic formalism that characterizes segmentational approaches to sense-for-sense and word-for-word translation. But there is also a strong sense in which domestication is a geohermeneutical rethinking of sense-for-sense translation, based on the recognition that the ancient preference for sense-for-sense translating is grounded not in pure formalism but in a specific generalized hermeneutic of "natural language" and easy accessibility for target readers who don't want to work too hard, and have no inclination to rethink their world.
So foundational is the distinction between sense-for-sense and word-for-word translation to two millennia of thinking about translation, numerous authors have invented new terms for them that do not actually add anything to the distinction. A case in point is Peter Newmark's distinction between "semantic equivalence" (word-for-word translation) and "communicative equivalence" (sense-for-sense translation).
The technical term for the approach to translation that distinguishes between sense-for-sense and word-for-word translation is "segmentation": the two methods are essentially different ways of segmenting the source text for translation, into individual words or phrases, clauses, sentences, and larger textual units.
In rare cases, sense-for-sense translation overlaps with word-for-word translation. For example, when the German sentence Johan ist nicht zu Hause is translated as Johan is not at home, that target text is an idiomatic translation of the whole sentence that also renders word for word:
- ist = is
- nicht = not
- zu = at
- Hause = home
It could also be argued, of course, that zu Hause is literally "to house," and that translating it "at home" effectively renders the two words not as two words but as a coherent idiom. This reading would undermine the claim that the translation "Johan is not at home" is both word-for-word and sense-for-sense: "at home" would be a sense-for-sense but not word-for-word rendering.
Cases in which a sense-for-sense is identical to a word-for-word translation are extremely rare because different languages almost invariably structure sentences differently (use different syntagmata or word orders). To reproduce some close approximation of the meaning of a whole sentence in another language, therefore, one must almost always change the word order to reflect the idiomatic syntagmata of the target language.
The fact that most translators and translation commentators have preferred sense-for-sense over word-for-word translation reflects the common assumption that the purpose of all translation is to communicate the meaning of the source text in a way that will be easily accessible to the target reader. Proponents of various literalisms (including foreignisms) dispute that generalization.
- Douglas Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory from Herodotus to Nietzsche (Manchester, UK: St. Jerome, 1997, 2ed 2002), 25.
- Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory, 9.
- Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory, 15.
- For Boethius, Eriugena, Burgundio, and Denham, see Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory, 35, 37, 42, and 156. For Sherburne, see T. R. Steiner, English Translation Theory, 1650-1800 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1975), 89. André Lefevere's translation of Horace appears in Lefevere, ed., Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 15: "Do not worry about rendering word for word, faithful translator, but render sense for sense." This of course not only makes Horace's advice for the writer into advice for the translator, but anachronistically imports Jerome's coinage back into Horace's dictum, which actually preceded it by four centuries. For discussion, see also Douglas Robinson, Who Translates (Albany: SUNY Press, 2001), 170-174.
- See Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory, 14 (Philo), 20 (Quintilian), and 172 (Dryden).
- See Robinson, ed., Western Translation Theory, 229.
- Gentzler, Edwin (2001). Contemporary Translation Theories. 2nd Ed. London and New York: Routledge.
- Lefevere, André. (1992). Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook. London and New York: Routledge.
- Newmark, Peter. (1988). A Textbook of Translation. New York: Prentice Hall.
- Nida, Eugene A., and Charles R. Taber. (1969). The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: Brill.
- Robinson, Douglas. (2001). Who Translates? Translator Subjectivities Beyond Reason. Albany: SUNY Press.
- Robinson, Douglas, ed. (2002). Western Translation Theory From Herodotus to Nietzsche. Manchester: St. Jerome.
- Steiner, T.R. (1975). English Translation Theory, 1650-1800. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
- Venuti, Lawrence. (1995). The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge (Read full version here)