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Published On: Fri, Dec 13th, 2019

Literal Translation vs. Liberal Translation

There has long been an ongoing battle between proponents of two opposing schools of translation: those who favor translating literally — according to the exact meaning of the source language — and those who prefer to translate liberally, freely rendering the source language as they see fit. We consider this battle as it has been applied by “social justice warriors” who continually raise alarms about “microaggressions” and “shaming” by harsh, direct, or otherwise “politically incorrect” language. We will consider humorous and egregious examples of the excesses in liberal language (ab)use and how literal translation can be used to expose these linguistic transgressions.

photo Jennifer Moo via Flickr

Lost in Translation: From Eden to Advertising

The debate of liberal vs. literal translations traces back to the origins of speech and the most ancient sources of the written world. Literally “in the beginning”, in the biblical book of Genesis we have on the one hand language used to create distinctions, between light and dark, day and night, but we also have ambiguity and disagreement over the meaning of terms. For example, we have the crafty serpent in Eden, and even, debating what God meant concerning which fruit of which tree was edible and what would be the consequences of eating it. The snake was advancing a liberal interpretation of what God had said, raising the prospect that Adam and Eve could, by eating, distinguish good and evil.

A similar debate has carried through the centuries in the translating profession, whether one is translating from Spanish to English or discussing usage in only one language. The battle still rages among translation services, where the issue of literality vs. liberality is a daily debate. It is safe to say that in strictly technical or legal documents, literality enjoys the upper hand, because here exactitude and accuracy are paramount. The same, however, does not necessarily hold true for marketing or advertising. Ofer Tirosh, CEO of Tomedes, a global translation company, notes that in such translation tasks “clients care most about the effect or impact of the language, whether it will move the reader to a desired action. The exactness of the translation is secondary in importance to its effectiveness and influence.”

Literality and Liberality in Journalistic and Political Parlance

In today’s super-charged political landscapes and journalistic jousting, that same debate finds expression. To generalize, we can say that literality is more conservative while liberality is, well, more liberal. Conservatives, as a rule, seek to adhere to more traditional, literal meanings of language rooted in history and precedent, while liberals seem to have less of a problem inventing terms that have no correlate in common sense reality. 

This conflict has come to the fore, perhaps most explicitly in the highly contentious realm of gender identity. Professor Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto shot to global prominence when he refused to comply with the new regulations imposed by the province of Ontario dictating the use of unconventional gender pronouns, requiring their use instead of the traditional “she” and “he”. LGBT advocates and their liberal advocates in the provincial parliament demanded adoption of new-founded “non-binary” pronouns like zesiehirco, and ey. These debates may seem like oddities, but increasingly pronoun usage has become, if not a matter of law, a basis for criticism of one’s professional conduct.

What’s the Professional Translation of Political Correctness?

Other illustrations of the distinctions between literal and liberal meaning fall in the category of the debate over political correctness. How do you translate the French adjective “gras” (m) or “graisse” (f).  If your literal translation is “fat”, you may be correct but you may also find yourself accused of “fat-shaming.” Perhaps a liberal, free translation, would be “plus size”, “curvy”, “voluptuous” or even (for those with artistic inclinations) “Rubenesque”. Even in this simple example, it is possible to see the distortions of reality caused by the use of these politically correct euphemisms.

It may have been fatuous for Joe Biden to call his Iowa town hall questioner “fat”, but he was certainly correct if not politically astute in applying this label. Or to take another very contemporary example, Democrat party leaders apply some very liberal translations within the English language when they seek to redefine the word “bribery” to extend to whatever cajoling Donald Trump may have been applying in his congratulatory call to his Ukrainian counterpart.

The debate over political correctness perhaps reaches its peak in the titanic war over “fake news”, a phrase reportedly introduced by the inimitable comic Norm McDonald when he was the news anchor over at Saturday Night Live. Norm is notorious for his outspoken eschewal of political correctness, as when he corrected those who said that his hero Bill Cosby’s greatest sin was not “the hypocrisy” but rather “the rapin’”. Today liberals and conservative spar over who can term what “fake” and technology companies adjust their algorithms so that what they deemed fake (aided by liberal think tank minions) cannot get a fair shake in the SEO rankings or get shadow-banned in YouTube recommendations.

The Literal vs. Liberal Translation Debate Lives on After Life

It would be mistaken, of course, to assume that political correctness and euphemistic language is the creation of vapid vaped-out millennials. We might liberally translate the evacuation of our waste products as “going to the bathroom.” When a lady is pregnant, she more liberally is “eating for two,” “in the family way” or has “a bun in the oven.” And when we shuffle off this mortal coil after a less than successful procedure, a free translator might say that we are not dead but rather experiencing a “negative patient outcome.” Perhaps the most egregious euphemism for those who cherish life is that the “partial birth abortion” – itself a circumvention of the grim literal truth – is called by physicians an “intact dilation and extraction” procedure, further abstracted, horrifyingly, as a “D&X”.

Whether one works at a translation agency or serves as an editor of a publication or media outlet, one’s day is increasingly taxed by the need to ensure that any linguistic output is not offensive to someone. What’s the way out? Well, I have a modest proposal, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift. Indeed, those of us who seek to speak the unvarnished truth have been restraining ourselves not to lash out at the linguistic Lilliputians who have been scurrying about trying to inveigle our invective, and constrain our righteous conviction by ensnaring us in the sticky wicket of their linguistic restraints.

Let Machine Translation Services Call the Shots

Every translation agency worth its salt knows that human translation will not soon be replaced by machines. Even though AI-driven “machine translation” has improved dramatically in recent years, a cunning linguist (i.e. professional translator) can outwit Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, DeepL or other translating algorithms to make the best translation (that is, most literally correct) version of a given text. This is true especially when the text involves a creative dimension or, on the other hand, a pedantic academic lecture or pompous political speech.

The reason is simple: machines have no sense of humor, no taste for irony, no tolerance for puffery and pride. That’s why, left to their own devices, machine translation can turn back the clock of political correctness to the “good old days” where fat was fat, and people died, not passed. Translation software and robot translators, trained well by literalists and conservatives, can yet return plain spoken meaning and common sense to our political and journalistic discourse. 

“Translational research” should be conducted to entrust these well-trained software algorithms and ‘bots to returning literality to our lexicon and political discourse. Only they have what it takes to expunge the deceptive plague (or is it dental plaque?) from our schools, publications, and public life. 

Take that, liberal Lilliputians: Gulliver will be gullible no more!

Author: Sheila Pulido

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