to translate or copy-write:that is the question!

On 26 Jan., 2010

a translation must be faifhful to the original text' yet transparent to the reader' inasmuch as the translation should not be perceptible.

to translate or copy-write:that is the question!

To translate or copy-write: That is the question!  

In previous centuries, and before the age of hyper-specialization, in order to translate a document, one would simply call a translator, give him the original text and trust him to use his best judgment to provide a translation that reflects the original. Nowadays, with the ubiquitous usage of instant mass communications, Internet campaigns or traditional mass media, things have become more complicated

When we covered the differences between machine and human translations , we assumed that you already decided to send your document to a translator, and not to a copywriter. Various comments we received since then indicate that the differences beftween copywriters and translators are not well understood. Therefore, here are some guides to the specifics of the translator's and copywriter's work respectively.


A translation must be faithful to the original text, yet transparent to the reader, inasmuch as the translation should not be perceptible. Thus, a 17th-century French critic coined the phrase “les belles infidèles” (the beautiful unfaithful women) to suggest that translations, like women, could be either faithful or beautiful, but not both at the same time.


Fidelity pertains to the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text. This means that it neither adds to nor subtracts from it, neither strengthens nor weakens any part of it, nor otherwise distorts it.


Transparency, on the other hand,  pertains to the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language… in other words, how well it conforms to the target language's grammatical, syntactic and idiomatic conventions.


So, translating consists of walking that fine line between fidelity and transparency, with a marked preference for fidelity.


Copywriting, on the other hand, is the use of words and images to promote a person, business, opinion or idea. For a copywriter, the concept of fidelity is closer to the fidelity a sultan would have to the women of his harem than that of a typical Western man to his one and only wife.


Although the word "copy" may be applied to any content intended for printing (as in the body of a newspaper, article or book), the term "copywriter" is generally limited to promotional situations, regardless of media. This implies that a contemporary copywriter must be able to work with the tools used in advertisements for print, television, radio and other media.


Back in the 17th century, a translator did both translating and copywriting, choosing between fidelity and beauty according to the situation.


Today, however, a translator is always faithful to the source text because it has been hammered deep into his professional ethic that faithfulness is the cornerstone of his profession. A translator specializing in legal or medical translation for example, would be committing a grave professional mistake were he to take any liberties with the original text. Hence, it would break his heart to betray the source text just to make it pretty.


At the other end of the spectrum, a copywriter’s call in life is to find creative ways to seduce and ultimately win over his target audience. In the case of a copywriter who is able to master two languages and two cultures, he will happily betray the source text and dress it up in ways most enticing to the target audience.


As you can see, translators and copywriters, far from competing with each other, in fact complement each other and fulfill vastly different roles.

A word of caution: after reading this article, you shouldn't conclude that you now know how to choose between a clever copywriter and a stern translator. We must still cover the difference between “localization” and “globalization”, a topic we will tackle in our next article.