Frequently Asked Questions

Which translation should I read? Which translation should I teach? Can we read translated texts without acknowledging that they are translated?

In any age and context, translators are the medium through which thoughts, values, beliefs, and experiences are filtered. With any translation, some degree of interpretation will inevitably be necessary to accommodate vocabulary, grammatical structure, large and small scale cultural realities. When the source text is ancient, this adds another layer of difficulty because translators typically are not tethered to the values out of which that source text emerged.

In addition to the inevitable interpretation, do assessment and judgment of the source text and its world have a place it translation? Or is the translator’s responsibility fundamentally empathetic: to render the source text as closely as possible? In the case of translations of poetry, if both meaning and effect cannot be translated, which should be privileged? When teaching texts in translations, should translation and its challenges be addressed, or should translated texts be taught the same way as any other texts?

The Institute’s position is that, while there can be no “perfect” translation, translators should strive for faithfulness to the source text’s meaning. “Faithfulness” is not a straightforward process and can be achieved a number of ways, but the guiding principle is that translators should allow source texts to speak on their own terms, as much as this is possible. Because translation always involves some degree of interpretation, it is necessary to acknowledge translated texts as such and incorporate discussions of translation into teaching approaches.

To understand what is meant by the fraught nature of faithfulness, consider the word kleos (κλέος). This word, which has alternately been translated as “fame” and “glory” is of central importance in the Homeric epics and is built into compound names like Patroclus and Cleopatra (“pater” + “kleos”).  The fuller meaning of kleos is more like “name on one’s lips” or “that which is sung about.” Though both fame and glory can be appropriate, neither quite captures what kind of reward kleos offers heroes: Neither fame nor glory fully captures that the reward heroes are promised is immortalization through epic song (though fame might get slightly closer).