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Translation and its reception

Translation might seem an automatic activity which requires only the knowledge of the two languages and the two cultures involved to such an extent that the translator is capable of understanding the meaning of the original and of producing an  “equivalent” message in the target language. “Equivalent” may be understood as “the same” although a more reasonable interpretation is probably “communicating the same meaning”. It often seems that target recipients expect faithfulness to the original, sometimes even demanding equivalence at the level of words, which might be noticed, for instance, when analyzing opinions on film subtitles. At the same time, we would like to deal with texts that are easy and pleasant to read as if they had originally been created in the language of the translation. This is where one encounters the nagging problem: what to do if faithfulness and beauty refuse to go together in the target text?

Translation theory is full of reflections on the choice between being loyal towards the original and conforming to the target norms. Translators are usually advised to make their particular decisions in the context of the concrete texts they are working on. It also seems obvious that translators are confronted with the above dilemma to varying degrees, depending on the given source material.  Still, it turns out that the translator is burdened with a great deal of responsibility and the decisions that he/ she makes have serious consequences on the way in which the recipient perceives the target text. “The same meaning” might appear to vary depending on the choices made by the particular translator, who may decide, for instance, in favour of connotation rather than denotation, and the original “cheesecake” might as if miraculously become the target “apple pie”. Thus, equivalence, which seemingly is the defining feature of translation, may also become a blurred concept, divisible into different types, not all of which represent our expectations of “the same”. Hence, translation is everything but automatic, which definitely makes it a fascinating challenge from the point of view of the translator.

What, however, about the recipient? Are recipients demanding idealists requiring “the same” but in their native language? Do they want to know exactly “what it was like in the original” or do they prefer a target version which is adapted to their cultural context? Are they interested in differentiating between the former and the latter in the first place? As receptors of translations, do we look for the same quality in original texts and in translations? When reading a book for pleasure, are we aware of whether we are dealing with a translation or with an original text? Do we treat translations as the source of knowledge about “the foreign” or do we think that everything should be explainable by means of our own language and culture? It seems that finding answers to those questions might help us find out how we perceive the phenomenon of translation – an effort worth making, as translations shape our domestic culture to a considerable degree, and being aware of what makes us what we are cannot be overestimated.