The Everyday Business of Translation

George Steiner

  • The True Interpreter by Louis Kelly
    Blackwell, 282 pp, £15.00

Translation was, until recently, the stepchild of critical attention and literary theory. Translators themselves were poorly-paid drudges. Views on the nature of literary translation turned on a dichotomy as ancient as Horace and Quintilian (who, themselves, took it over from Greek predecessors): as between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’, as between goals of utmost fidelity, represented by an interlinear version of the original, and ideals of active echo or re-creation in the target-language. From Renaissance theorists and Dryden onward, a threefold historical scheme was standard: there are word-for-word transfers; there are attempts at faithful paraphrase but in a style native to the tongue of the translator; and there are diverse orders of ‘free’ translation or recasting which can range all the way from the Augustan stylisation in Pope’s Homer to the ‘variations on a source-theme’ which we find in Mallarmé’s Poe or Pound’s Propertius. With rare exceptions, it is around these two formal poles and in terms of this executive triad that treatises on the theory and business of translation are constructed from classical antiquity to the early 20th century.

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