Translation and Source Metaphors

If a metaphor is potentially understandable in the target language, why should be change it, even if its never been used in English elsewhere?

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

George Orwell “Politics and the English Language

I say, if the metaphor, no matter how foreign it is, successfully assists thought by evoking that visual image, keep it in the text. If it hinders thought rather than assisting, replace it with one that does – but maintain the poetic* style of the source text. That means, try to avoid dying metaphors and don’t use ones that have lost their power.

*I use the term “poetic” rather loosely to refer to any kind of creative language.

6 thoughts on “Translation and Source Metaphors

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  1. Surely if the source language metaphor is one of those dying ones which “have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves” and “are used without knowledge of their meaning”, and if in translation we render them with new metaphors which have “never been used in English elsewhere”, then we are evoking a visual image which was never intended by the original author, and so distorting the text?

  2. In that instance, it seems to me that there are options:

    1) Insert a new metaphor to convey the meaning
    2) Remove the metaphor completely.

    As I see it, both of those options distort the text.

  3. I agree. I would controversially include the NT head metaphors in this group. In Greek, “head” was metaphoric for “beginning” or “source” whereas in English is means “authority.”

    My response to Peter is that every translation is a distortion of the text because you can never carry the exact meaning, if only slightly most times. The issue is rather to minimize the distortions. Or, time travel to the 1st century and live in the language and culture. Whichever is easier.

  4. On head (kephale/κεφαλη):

    Authority? – no.

    Source? – maybe.

    Prominant? – probably

    If you can find Richard Cervin’s article on the word from the late 80’s. he makes a pretty good case for the last one.

  5. Mike,
    Isn’t “meta-phor” a Greek metaphor? In Aristotle’s day it meant a carrier of meaning or something like that? For the moderns it’s used for moving vans. As an English abstraction, does it die? What do you think of Mark Johnson’s and George Lakoff’s work, Metaphors We Live By?

  6. So many questions, Kurk.

    I suppose.

    I think so.

    Metaphorically speaking, I think it does…

    I haven’t read it yet. The closest I’ve come is reading the preface of Women Fire and Dangerous things. My wife’s the linguist in the family who has put any effort into studying metaphor…

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