Can translations ever capture the true essence of the original word? More abstract concepts or ideas such as love, anger, or honor are fundamentally built on cultural and social understanding and context, which may be difficult to be aptly understood by outsiders. So when we take these culturally-laden terms and attempt to translate them into a different language, are we inadvertently imposing assumptions and simplifications upon the authenticity of the term? Is the art of translation so futile that only the native speakers can truly understand, or if not, how can we do these words justice when translating?

This is an issue that occurs to anyone who has ever translated anything, and you are right, it is a problematic activity. On the other hand, it depends what counts as translation. If it is a matter of capturing ever nuance that exists in the original language then it often cannot be done, perhaps never, since to understand a phrase or sentence completely might involve an insider's grasp of the culture and environment along with the language, in which case a translation of course is unnecessary. If it is a matter of understanding the basic ideas that exist in the original language, that seems to me to be quite feasible, and makes the translation enterprise worth doing.

There was a lively debate on this issue in the early years of Islamic philosophy, where so much was translated out of Greek into Arabic, often via Syriac. Al-Farabi argued that behind the surface grammar of each individual language which are obviously distinct from each other there exists a deep grammar which is logic, and that is shared by the different languages. Translation works when it brings out the logic of a language, and this can be represented quite readily in another language. We are imposing the idea on the translated language that they use the same logic as we do, but he thought that was acceptable. It is assumption upon which translation largely rests.

As someone who teaches ancient Greek philosophy in translation (almost all the time, at any rate), I have worried a lot about questions like yours. I have also been a translator of some of the texts I and others teach, and so I have also encountered the problem from that side, too. It's a thorny one, for sure. The easiest answer is the purist one: translations are simply never adequate. But in the end, I also think this is far too easy an answer, to the point of actually being worthless.

Here's why: What happens when some student decided he or she really wants to avoid the pitfalls of working from someone else's translation? Well, he or she must learn the original language. OK, good choice. But wait: do the teachers of that language themselves somehow manage to avoid the cultural and social aspects of the culture(s) of teacher and student so completely or effectively that the process of learning the new language is not itself just as likely to continue whatever misunderstandings the student was trying to avoid? I hope you see the conundrum: learning a different language (not one's native language, in other words) itself generally takes place within a social and cultural context other than the one native to the language learned. This is why teachers of modern languages emphasize in-culture learning as something that is very important to mastery. But such opportunities don't exist for "dead" languages like Greek or Latin, or even the older versions of still-living languages. (I'm assuming that time machines don't exist, of course!)

So...some of the problems you are worried about are simply not removed by learning the original languages. But here's the deal: Good translators know this very well, and when they provide their translations, one of the challenges they are alert to is that of cultural distance.

There is a great quote from Aristotle that I love to use with my students to make this very point. I will give it (for obvious reasons) in translation. In Nicomachean Ethics Book I chapter 7, Aristotle says (in Martin Ostwald's translation): "To call happiness the highest good is perhaps somewhat trite." The Greek word translated as "happiness" here (now in transliteration) is "eudaimonia." As I say to my students, forget "happiness" for a minute and just think about what word we could put into the blank where it now appears--"to call ________ the highest good is perhaps somewhat trite" and make the sentence something true in English, since Aristotle thought that what he was saying (in Greek to a Greek-speaking audience) was so obvious as to be "trite." There is no word that will make the sentence true in English, I claim, because English speakers do not have a shared common view about what word they would apply to "the highest good." But the Greeks, it seemed--though they may have had some disagreements about how best to understand or analyze more closely what the word meant--did have a word for this that was commonly shared and accepted as appropriate. So that really compels recognition that there is a cultural difference at work here. So what do I do about this, as a teacher, or as a translator? The answer is, alert to the problem, I at least put in a footnote or find some way to add explanation and words of caution about my own translation decisions and how a simple substitution of English for Greek creates potential misunderstanding.

But once I have done this song-and-dance, I frankly do not see that my own students, working from translation, are just as alert to the questions that apply to this part of the original text (for us) as are those who have learned the original language. In other words, alert and well-assisted users of translation are in a much better position than what I earlier called the purist view seems to acknowledge.

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