transfer of the meaning of something in one language into another

Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text.

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.
King James Bible (The Translators)
Poetry is what is lost in translation.
Robert Frost
The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower.
Percy Bysshe Shelley


  • Translation of poetry into poetry is difficult, because the translator must give a brilliancy to his language without that warmth of original conception, from which such brilliancy would follow of its own accord.
  • I will venture to assert, that a just translation of any ancient poet in rhyme is impossible. No human ingenuity can be equal to the task of closing every couplet with sounds homotonous, expressing at the same time the full sense, and only the full sense of his original.
    • William Cowper, The Iliad of Homer: translated into English blank verse (1791), Preface.
    • Compare: "Though it may be true, that no translation of an ancient poet in rhyme can be faithful, yet experience has proved that no translation, except in rhyme, will ever be read." Robert Lynam, The British Essayists, Vol. XVIII (1827), Preface, p. xxi.
  • Such is our pride, our folly, or our fate,
    That few but such as cannot write, translate.
    • John Denham, To Sir Richard Fanshaw, Upon his Translation of Pastor Fido (1648), line 1.
  • Nor ought a genius less than his that writ
    Attempt translation.
    • John Denham, To Sir Richard Fanshaw, Upon his Translation of Pastor Fido (1648), line 9.
  • I conceive it is a vulgar error in translating poets, to affect being fidus interpres... [for] poetry is of so subtile a spirit, that in the pouring out of one language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a caput mortuum, there being certain graces and happinesses peculiar to every language, which give life and energy to the words... therefore if Virgil must needs speak English, it were fit he should speak not only as a man of this nation, but as [a] man of this age.
  • No man is capable of translating poetry, who, besides a genius to that art, is not a master both of his author's language and of his own; nor must we understand the language only of the poet, but his particular turn of thoughts and expression, which are the characters that distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other writers. When we are come thus far it is time to look into ourselves, to conform our genius to his, to give his thought either the same turn, if our tongue will bear it, or, if not, to vary but the dress, not to alter or destroy the substance.
  • You've often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.
    • Robert Frost, A Backward Look, by Louis Untermeyer (1964), p. 18.
  • When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look at the translation as an act of violence against itself. To translate a foreign writer is to add to your own national poetry; such a widening of the horizon does not please those who profit from it, at least not in the beginning.
    • Victor Hugo, Preface to the Shakespeare translations published by his son François-Victor in 1865, as reported in Translation/History/Culture: A Sourcebook, ed. André Lefevere (Routledge, 2002), p. 18
  • I felt that by translating, first of all, I made something accessible that was inaccessible and would remain inaccessible. And in some cases, it actually inspired other people to learn Yiddish, by reading the -- then they said, I want to read the original and I want to read more. What's not translated?'s not like the real thing. It never is. But it's either you get this, or you get nothing. And I feel that a good translation -- it's not the original -- gives you a lot...I wish more stuff was available in English. I mean, I wish I could put stuff in my classroom. But I can't, unless it's translated. And then, that means that students remain ignorant of it.
  • Words are living things, full of shades of meaning, full of associations; and, what is more, they are apt to change their significance from one generation to the next. The translator who understands his job feels, constantly, like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls; words are for ever eluding his grasp.
    • Ronald Knox, On Englishing the Bible (London: Burns Oates, 1949), p. 11.
  • ...The literal translation, that is, of absolute fidelity to the literary form in which, within his language, the author expressed his thought, betrays and kills the translated work. The good translator must say (...) the same thing (...) but within the translator's language (...) only then will he really be translating what matters: the idea, the author's thought. Who seeks to translate the form (...) does not do translation. He does a horrible thing called transliteration (...) unintelligible...
  • Literal translation of poetry is in reality a solecism. You may construe your author, indeed, but if with some Translators you boast that you have left your author to speak for himself, that you have neither added nor diminished, you have in reality grossly abused him, and deceived yourself. Your literal translation can have no claim to the original felicities of expression; the energy, elegance, and fire of the original poetry. It may bear indeed a resemblance, but such a one as a corps in the sepulchre bears to the former man when he moved in the bloom and vigour of life.

    Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus

    was the taste of the Augustan age. None but a poet can translate a poet.
    • William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; Or, The Discovery of India: an Epic Poem (1776), Introduction, pp. cxlix–cl.
  • It was not to gratify the dull few, whose greatest pleasure in reading a translation is to see what the author exactly says; it was to give a poem that might live in the English language which was the ambition of the Translator. ... And the original is in the hands of the world.
    • William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; Or, The Discovery of India: an Epic Poem (1776), Introduction, p. cli.
  • Whenever someone suggests "how much is lost in translation!" I want to say, "Perhaps but how much is gained!" A new world of readers, for one thing.
    • Naomi Shihab Nye Introduction to This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World (1992)
  • I think people who work on translation projects think that they're somehow peace negotiators because the belief is that we'll never stop killing one another until we understand and see one another as human beings. I think that's true.
  • Translations [into the German language], even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. ... The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.
    • Rudolf Pannwitz, Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur (1917), as translated in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926 (1996), pp. 261-262.
  • The translator of a poem is only a transient mediator... in time all translations fall away, fade, become literary curiosities, time-bound and largely of scholarly rather than literary interest.
  • That translation is the best which comes nearest to giving its modern audience the same effect as the original had on its first audiences. Just to illustrate that, may I use a rather crude example from modern French? French novelists often represent married couples as calling each other mon chou, which I don't think would strike a Frenchman as funny at all. If you translate that into English by the words, 'my cabbage,' you're going as far as possible as you can from the principle of equivalent effect. In fact, you're making the English reader think that Frenchmen are silly, which is the last thing that you should do. [...] The word [paraphrase] is much misused, by the way; it is often used as a term of abuse for very good translation. I should put it in this way, that it is permissible only where literal translation is liable to obscure the original meaning. I would go further and say that on such occasions it is not only permissible, but it is imperative, and therefore it becomes good translation, and the word 'paraphrase' should disappear.
  • Translation, I believe, is about interaction, interaction between one language and another, between one form of writing and another. It is the most optimistic of literary endeavours, because it suggests that everything may be transposed, and once transposed, comprehensible...The process of translation, of moving from one language to another, closely mirrors my own experience as a writer, driven from one country to another and from one language to another. I am so grateful to translators, to all translators, for making the literature of the world available to me and to all the peoples of the world, no matter what language they speak, because I do still believe that literature is the primary way in which we may come to understand one another. When translators sit down to their work, they are engaged in more than a mere transposing of thoughts and phrases from one language into another. Sometimes, as in the case of Yiddish, there is much more at stake: it is not merely that translation allows literary works to exist in languages in which they never existed before, but also that translators are engaged in snatching from the jaws of oblivion that which is in danger of disappearing. It is a most honourable calling; it is a preservation of the past in the present. I thank all translators for the fact that they exist and have devoted their lives to breaking down the barriers between peoples and alleviating the curse of the Tower of Babel.
    • Chava Rosenfarb "A Yiddish Writer Reflects on Translation" (2005) included in "Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays", edited and translated from the Yiddish by Goldie Morgentaler (2019)
  • A translation must speak for itself. As a rule, it only requires a commentary where it is not directly convincing, and where the translator does not feel secure.
    • Rudolph Roth, quoted in Thomson, Karen. 2016. “Speak for itself: How the Long History of Guesswork and Commentary on a Unique Corpus of Poetry has Rendered it Incomprehensible.” Times Literary Supplement, 8 January: 3–4.
  • Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.
  • Traduzo, sim, mas fico cheia de mêdo de ler traduções que fazem de livros meus. Além de ter basntante enjôo de reler coisas minhas, fico também com mêdo do que o tradutor possa ter feito com um texto meu.
    • I do translate, but I get filled with fear when reading translations of my books. Besides feeling quite nauseous when rereading my own work, I also become afraid of what the translator may have done to my text.
  • How shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? [...] Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.
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