Talking Translation #2 – Interpretation

There is a popular idea in Translation Theory, one pretty much accepted as a given that a translation both takes and gives to the original. It is a thing first year Translation degree students often haven’t thought about, used as they are to the idea that translation is an act of compromise – an act of trying to pass information from one source to the next. One has to only try to translate a couple pages, or hell, even a couple of lines to see how hard it is to carry all the little information displayed by an author’s choice of words, or the use of a particular term.

Consider for example the sentence (purely made up on the spot but inspired by current reading):

“His shoulders shook with exhaustion, his back tense as he stiffened, sweat droplets falling out of his hair as he struggled, harder than he had ever struggled, to hold on to all the weight he now carried.”


Am I reading some gay erotica? Or About Atlas? You decide!

Now, ask yourself what information is worth carrying over from the original sentence onto the one in a new language? Must we really – as it’s often thought before we start studying translation – find an equivalent word? Ignore style in favor of an almost word for word literal translation?

It is a question I don’t have an answer for, nor does any one translator, the question on how to translate “sense for sense – word for word” has been one that has hit us for more than two thousand years now, and the answer is likely to be as influenced by where you were born as it is by when you were born.  A 18th century Frenchman will not translate just as closely  as a 19th century German romanticist, preferring instead to carry on the spirit rather than the words.

But it is not the question on how close you should stick to the original – to the point of translating individual words that I want to discuss today but rather, the matter of interpretation. You probably deduced that already by the title of this blog post but I feel that it warrants a rethread, should one have gotten distracted.

By and large interpretation of a work of art such as a book, painting, photograph, movie, video game or any other form of media or entertainment is often thought to be personal. In fact the very popular Barthes’ essay on the topic “The Death of the Author” claims such a thing in (many) more words. It matters not what authors wished to pass with their texts, it only matter what the audience gets out of it. Any interpretation – be it as close as that the author actually intended or as far fetched as possible is valid, it’s valid not as THE interpretation, because there is no such thing, but as AN interpretation. Art means different things to different people, and it’s just what it is.


Many people say The Wonderful Wizard of OZ is about the Gold Rush – Me? I just see it as effed up (seriously read the Tin Man’s original backstory).

Let me give you a personal example, one close to my mind. Although a translator has a small ego – in that they mostly work in the background and remain anonymous, their names and personality not worth mentioning except in small print on contracts – I feel like, to better understand what I mean by personal interpretation I should give you an example of my childhood – or rather, teenagehood.

I’ve mentioned my queerness before, and anyone who does follow me on Twitter (link at the bottom of the page, I don’t bite) will know that I am also a huge Disney fan. We could enter a discussion on how ethical it is to enjoy Disney given what they represent and what they have become, or how they own enough things to threaten a monopoly but that’s not what matters right now.

I direct you to the 1998 movie Mulan, not the life action remake, just recently released on Disney Plus and which I cannot recommend, but the 90s Disney Renaissance movie. Now Mulan has gathered a bit of a reputation in queer circles for being a movie about a transgender protagonist. Easy joke to make right? She literally goes off to war and pretends to be a man and gains value as a man and enjoys being a man and acts betrayed when she’s revealed to be a woman  – so the comparisons would be inevitable. There are reasons in the plot, and in the script, for why she does all those things, mind you, but what came off as a joke became something that meant a lot to a lot of people.

As you can see from the pronouns I used I do not particularly rank Mulan high in the list of potential trans masculine icons in family media, if you ask me Jo from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series has a much higher consideration for it on my mind but that does not mean the idea of “Mulan and trans people” did not mean something to me.

Allow me to list the lyrics to one of the movie’s earliest songs, Reflection:


Look at me,
I may never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter.
Can it be, I’m not meant to play this part?
Now I see, that if I were truly to be myself,
I would break my family’s heart.

Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?
Somehow I cannot hide?
Who I am, though I’ve tried.
When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?
How I pray, that a time will come,
I can free myself, from their expectations
On that day, I’ll discover someway to be myself,
and to make my family proud.
They want a docile lamb,
No-one knows who I am.
Must there be a secret me,
I’m forced to hide?
Must I pretend that I am someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?
When will my reflection show, who I am inside?

And sure, it’s on the nose, it’s not subtle in any way but this particular song speaks to me in a way very few other Disney songs do. It has become one I mutter to reassure myself of my trans identity and one I quote when I look back at how far I’ve come – which is not far at all but there’s been progress.

And does this mean Disney set out to do a trans narrative? Or that the composers and lyricists meant to appeal to such an audience? It’s possible! Unlikely, maybe, even more so when we consider the movie was produced in the 90s but who knows? The point is, it doesn’t really matter.

Unless you’re translating it that is.

Translation should be invisible, but how possible is that?

Although it is often said that a good translation should be invisible – in that it reads as if the original (or rather source) text was written in the language it’s being read at, it is now widely understood that any translator will not only alter the original but add to it.

Is that a bad thing? Is this a good thing? The truth is just, that it’s a thing. It is not a morally quantifiable act, a “good thing or a bad thing”, but rather it is the inevitable end result of translation, and if a work has any subjectivity at all – it cannot be avoided. Obviously technical or legal text do not suffer from this problem – a contract has to stipulate and demand the same in both languages, an academical article can not have the translator switching data around lest it invalidate the results (though conversions from metric to imperial do happen – sometimes with disastrous results) but when it’s art? When it’s a video game, or a movie, or a book? Change will occur.

This does not mean that the original text will be switched up or that an allegory will necessarily change – if a book has an evil general ordering his soldiers to round off and kill innocents for they might foster rebels a translator will, unless ordered to do so, not suddenly rewrite the scene so the evil general is actually in the right, justified in his actions. That would not so much be a process of translation and transformation as it would be rewriting it and to put it bluntly rewriting it as fanfiction, but it does mean that the translator might see something else being referenced by the work. Maybe the original author meant it to be a reference to Germany occupied Poland in the 1940s, or maybe it might have been something straight out of the author’s twisted imagination, not meant to strike real life parallels. There’s every chance however, the translator will equate it to some other authoritarian act in History, perhaps the Spanish Inquisition, perhaps something the US government did in World War 2.


You can make everything political – Is Animal Crossing a criticism of Capitalism? Because to me it’s just a place where I hang with my friends while quarantining…

The point is that just as authors might have a certain allegory they’re trying to present, or even a lack of allegory (remember Tolkien’s words later in life),  the translator’s history, their life, struggles and thoughts can not fully be separated from their act of translation.

Translation is by itself an act of interpretation – it is, if you’ll forgive the arrogance – perhaps the most in-depth, taxing look one gives a work. Prior to translating a book a translator often spends 3 to 6 months breaking it down,  going over the same passages over and over again until they know them better than the author themselves.

Sure, often, working as a team that is not the case with video game translations, when you’re not privy to art, cinematics or gameplay, but rather get the whole thing presented in an Excel spreadsheet, lines devoid of context. They might be some of the most impactful, heavy hitting lines in a video game, “Who else will I eat my ice cream with”for instance, a line that still chokes me up – I’m sure had there been a Portuguese translation of it would not have hit the translator half as hard – when it was not the result of 20+ hours getting to know the character, but rather just one more line in a long list of lines to translate but translators are smart people – curious people too – they connect the dots and actually grasp at what’s being said. It’s their job to do so, they don’t just care for what a word means – they care for context – how it’ll play out.

The word “Nag” for instance is often thought of as negative, but context can make it a sweet, or even cute thing to be said. There’s a difference between:

“Stop being a nag!” He shouted angrily, slamming a fist against the table. “Jesus! Just let me think!”

And an UP like situation, where it’s an old married couple:

“Don’t forget your -“

“Coat, I’ve got it” – He turned to his wife of 40 years. Though her face had aged, as his also had the wrinkles could not hide the warmth in the eyes of the woman he had fallen in love with. The same warmth that had first attracted him to her. 

As he pushed the sleeves of the jacket onto his arms, buttoning it up, he couldn’t help but smile as he spoke.

“Thank you for taking care of me…you’re my favorite nag of all.,,,”

(As an aside those two are also random examples I came up with – though inspired by movies I’m sure most of us have already seen.)

So even as a translator climbs out the decontextualized lines to arrive at some sort of conclusion, or they analyze the work of the author for the hundredth time trying to think of how to best translate it their own personal view, interpretation and thoughts on the characters mount up. It’s a dilemma every translator faces, at some point, and while most will try to stick up to the text, most will try to only put an adaptation of the original and its words that is, by all modern interpretations of what translating is – impossible. Something of the translator will always seep out.

So the question becomes…Does this actually matter? Does the fact that a translator will be influenced by their perception and impression of the work change anything about the final translation?

It’s a good question, because…

Why it doesn’t matter – Translation of the product.


This Lego Star Destroyer is a visual representation of a Star Destroyer – though it lacks many of the details – it calls to mind what it is – This is important for the part to follow…

Ultimately no. It doesn’t matter. It might be that after reading 2000 or so of my words you’ve felt like you were lead on, why am I discussing the concept of personal interpretation of a work if it has little to no impact on the final product? If the final translation remains – and I hate this word with a passion – accurate enough to the original, is that not what matters?

Let us ignore the question of “accuracy in translation”, because that is another can of worms that has no real definition or answer – as indeed a dozen essays on the topic I could link to – prove, but let’s attempt to simplify the question a bit. It’s not through defining what an accurate translation is but rather in whether it keeps the “spirit” of the original. Spirit is another bad word I despise in translation, so perhaps a more practical example should serve.


As an aside – the transiction from the name “Star Wars” to having subtitles and how it was done across different languages is a very interesting examination on its own…maybe some day

Take Star Wars for example. Now Star Wars is generally considered to be influenced by, or even an allegory for the Vietnam War. You’ve got a resistance fighting against an imperialistic (literally called THE EMPIRE) force using weapons of mass destruction and – details are not overly important.

Ask yourself, if you ignore the message – that remember by a Barthes’ metric doesn’t really matter (or matter as much as your own personal interpretation) what, were you retelling the story of Star Wars IV: A New Hope would you need to actually get? What is it that makes Star Wars…well Star Wars? How would you adapt it?

I hope by now we have realized that translation is a form of adaptation – in fact it’d be more correct to say any adaptation translates the product. A book turned into a movie? A translation, a children’s version of a more mature book with pictures and very few sentences – yet another translation. Translation can be seen as the act of Adaptation. – There are a few exceptions – some worth nothing at some other time, but translation has been redefined globally as the form of adapting something from one form to another. And not necessarily a language to another, or from text to screen or picture!

So were we adapting Star Wars what would be keeping? Remember translation often cannot keep it all – That is why first year Translation Students think of translation as a process of loss – but it can add up to it.

So what do you keep?

  • The characters – farm boy Luke Skywalker, princess and ambassador Leia, rogue outlaw Han Solo, menacing Darth Vader
  • The backstory – There’s an empire doing things which are to be considered evil and some resistance – unnoficially supported by Alderaan – prior to the movie some really important plans for the Empire’s grand weapon – The Death Star  – were stolen and the Empire acts in retaliation
  • It’d also probably be a good idea to keep the plot of the movie itself the same – Luke’s family death, him discovering he’s something more, getting trained – the rescue – that final shot – temporary victory while the Empire recovers setting up sequels

Characters and Plot take so center stage, in what to keep. Other things you might want to keep in mind:

  • Character interaction – Han is a bit of a douche towards Luke and the whole Jedi thing, Obi Wan is mostly and stoic, Luke does not yet know Leia is his sister (and what comes from that), Chewie and Han are old companions…
  • Dialogue – “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!” “Use the force!” , etc

You’ll notice however that there have been things I’ve not listed as essential, at least to the standalone plot of  A New Hope, most obviously I’ve not listed the droids as essential, C3P0 and R2D2, though they play roles in the story.

Another thing I have not listed as essential? The message. The allegory, the moral. This isn’t Disney, or a Brother Grimm fairy-tale, no, while movies have messages and are excellent ways to open dialogue (for instance, is the Matrix about the trans experience?) those are elements that while part of the story, are not essential for it to be told.

And with this I by no means wish to minimize the themes of movies, which can be the most interesting or discussed part of them. Is Man of Steel about hope? An allegory for Jesus? Or perhaps an allegory for how the US treats “aliens”? Those are all questions worth discussing.


Call it indoctrination, but as a child growing up in Portugal our “great military leader who led by ambush” was Viriato (that’s Viriathus for most of the world). That’s who I would inevitably compare the Ewoks too, perhaps unfairly so.

To a translator however – it is not something that will define or lead their work – hell, it might even be that their work in translating accidentally points towards a different message. Star Wars is Star Wars whether it’s an allegory for the Vietnam war or one for the roman conquering of Hispania. Ewoks can represent a hundred different invaded people with inferior technology  but good knowledge of the lay of the land and a penchant for ambush. An Ewok will always be a Ewok, though, before it’s a Vietnamese person, or a Lusitano, or a native American. No matter what the director points to, or the translator imposes over it, or the studio or publisher demands them cut the politics out.

Can you tell Final Fantasy VII without the pro-environment message? You can! If you got an oil executive to cut and cull the story and translate it with pro-exploitation of natural resources – you could definitively do that.

But it would inevitably be a story about a group of “eco-terrorists” fighting for life and restoration of the natural order. Try as you might to paint Avalanche as in the wrong – and the remake does attempt to do so – the story will ultimately paint it as being the right thing to do so. Otherwise it’s not Final Fantasy.

Tolkien might have once said that:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

But if you want to believe that The LOTR was about World War 1 – or the poor sap saddled with translating Tolkien (not an easy translation – I can tell you from experience) wants to consider it just a retelling of classic Epics – then that ultimately does not change that one does not simply walk into mordor.

Further (introdutory resources):

Translation and Adaptation


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