‘What’s a translation?’ might appear to be a straightforward question, but Dr James Hadley, early career researcher in translation/translingual studies and French lecturer Dr Dominic Glynn, says this not the case.

As is sometimes the case, what appears to be a straightforward question calls for a complicated answer. Because in fact the question is not so simple. Indeed, to understand what a translation might be, we also need to consider what it might not be. Or rather, what a bad or mistranslation might be.

Let’s have a look at a well-known Christmas song and translate it from English into another language using an online tool. Repeat the process several times from language to language going round the world on a magical mystery tour. And then translate it back into English.

What do we end up with? The exact same set of lyrics? No. Certain lines are quite similar, but others are wildly different. Take the above: ‘I don’t care about the presents’ becomes ‘I am a duck’. It would be a tough call to argue that being a duck implies not caring about Christmas presents and that the two lines mean roughly the same thing. So you might argue that such lines, or even the song as a whole, are mistranslations. But then again, if you take translation to mean interpretation, well, ‘I am a duck’ may be a wacky interpretation of ‘I don’t care about the presents’, but an interpretation all the same.


The problem is that human language is notoriously ambiguous, meaning that two people can read exactly the same book, and take two completely different messages from it. At the same time, there are interpretations that veer away from the original message to such an extent that it seems appropriate to describe them as ‘wrong’. And another way of saying this in translation is to call it a ‘mistranslation’.

In the case of a song, a mistranslation is usually pretty harmless. However, imagine if the user manual for a chain-saw were mistranslated: the consequences could be very serious indeed.


How can we spot a mistranslation?

So, the question is: how do we, as readers, spot that a translation is doing something unexpected? In recent years, clips from the 2004 film Der Untergang, which depicts the final days of Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany, have been subtitled using a surprising range of parodying techniques. Take this one, where the subtitled text refers to saving money on electricity bills.

The fact we can only recognise that the subtitles in this film are not living up to what we expect of translations, is because of their incongruity with the visual scene. This incongruity flags up the subtitles as questionable translations of the audio, and the reader no longer takes them as a trustworthy rendering of the German script. It is this discrepancy that produces the comedy here.

But what about a translator who uses translation in a similar way though without the intention to parody? If we happen to have access to the original, we would probably be very quick to describe the text as a mistranslation. But what if we don’t? In this case, it would be possible for them to subvert our blind trust in what a translation is. And to mislead us about the content.

What assumptions can be make about mistranslations?


The key point is that most readers never really think carefully about what a translation is, how it is produced, for what reasons, and by whom. Instead, they just take the translation as representative of the original. Can a translation ever objectively represent an original? Have a listen to this recording of Donald Swann singing the traditional Russian folksong Верблюды, interspersed with his literal translation.

Are any mistranslations really mistranslations?

Overt translations, such as these bring us back to the question of what a translation is, and by extension, what it is not. Surely, translations that are not ‘proper’ translations are mistranslations? But who is going to decide? Meaning is a slippery thing in which elements of mood, aspect, theme, context, intertextuality, shared assumptions, and many other factors all play their part. Are we to throw out any translation that does not convey all of these elements perfectly? What about times when some of these elements need to be ignored because they are likely to create misunderstandings in the target readers? In the end, can we really point to any examples of texts that are objectively mistranslated? Click here to watch the full presentation.

Dr James Hadley is an early career researcher at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). He is interested in the ways that translation theory has been used, and even more interested in the ways that it has not been used. 

Dr Dominic Glynn joined the IMLR in 2015, having previously worked in professional theatre and academia in France. His main area of scholarship expertise is in contemporary French theatre and his next research project engages with the cross-disciplinary question of what it means to be a writer by studying contemporary French theatre.