Quotes on the Art of Translation

Translation is a very complex challenge. Many authors are famous for having shaped world literature. One key to their success is the translation of their original works into different languages. A less known fact is that some renowned authors also translated the works of other writers and mused about this fine art and the role of this profession:

„The translator must proceed until he reaches the untranslatable; and then only will he have an idea of the foreign nation and the foreign tongue.“
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders, 1906)

„And thus every translator is to be regarded as a middle-man in this universal spiritual commerce, and as making it his business to promote this exchange : for say what we may of the insufficiency of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest affairs in the general concerns of the world.“
(Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle, edited and translated by Charles Eliot Norton, New York, 1970)

„But how much easier it is to translate an anecdote, than a feeling! The witty and the unwitty can parrot the comical; but only the heart can capture the language of the heart. It has its own rules; and it is all over with it, at the moment when one fails to realize this, and wishes instead to subject it to the rules of grammar, and to give it all the cold completeness, all the tedious distinctness which we demand in a logical sentence.“
(Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 1767/69; translator unknown. Source: Michelle Stott, Behind the Mask: Kierkegaard’s Pseudonymic Treatment of Lessing in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1993)

„Isn’t it strange, that a verbatim translation almost always is a bad one? yet everything can be translated well. This goes to show what it truly means to fully understand a language: it means to know the people using it. „
(Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Sudelbücher, 1800-1806, translator unknown)

„The translator’s faithfulness turns into betrayal when it makes him obscure his original.“
(Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Rettungen des Horaz, 1754, translator unknown)

„Translators can be considered as busy matchmakers who praise as extremely desirable a half-veiled beauty. They arouse an irresistible yearning for the original.“
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe, translated by Bailey Saunders, 1906)

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