A lost dialogue with Socrates


Socrates: Greetings Metaphrastos! What good timing.

Metaphrastos: Greetings Socrates! Where are you going?

Socrates: I’m on my way to the agora. Let us walk together and converse along the way for I have something to ask you. I was strolling by the river this morning, as is my daily practice, when I stopped for a moment under the birch trees and heard the most marvellous birdsong. Try as I might, I could not imitate it and it made me think, my dear Metaphrastos, about the practice of translation.

Metaphrastos: How so, Socrates?

Socrates: I hesitate to ask the question, lest you think me a fool.

Metaphrastos: That I could never do, Socrates.

Socrates: Well, let me ask you, Metaphrastos, in simple terms: do you think that the practice of translation is a skill or an art?

Metaphrastos: I would say that it is a skill, Socrates. For as long as one knows the source language reasonably well, one can find equivalent words in another language.

Socrates: So it is a skill then, just like boat-building, or pottery, or baking bread?

Metaphrastos: Yes, I would say it is much the same Socrates.

Socrates: So just as a boat-builder, or a potter, or a baker needs the right instructions, materials, tools or ingredients, a translator simply needs a good knowledge of the source language and a good dictionary, and one can achieve a reasonable translation?

Metaphrastos: I would say so, Socrates.

Socrates: But surely a boat-builder can be given clear instructions and clear plans and sufficient money and the right tools, and there will still be times when he must make a decision for himself, perhaps about certain modifications that need to be made because of difficulty with the materials, or decisions about certain aesthetic features, or he must interpret the intention of the instructions as best he can without bothering the man who has tasked him with the job?

Metaphrastos: It is as you say, Socrates.

Socrates: And in the same way, wouldn’t you say that the potter, though he may be paid in advance and given clear instructions to prepare a beautiful pot with a scene of Herakles wrestling a lion, will still have to make a decision about how precisely to draw the figure of Herakles, in what stance, and with what expression and so on?

Metaphrastos: You are surely right, Socrates.

Socrates: And even a baker, no matter how well he has been taught, and how long he might have been a baker for, and how well he knows the recipe, knows that a great deal depends on the care and attention and love that he devotes to his task in that moment and this is a much more difficult thing to teach. Yet the baker knows from experience that it is this care and attention and love that makes the best tasting bread so he will strive nevertheless?

Metaphrastos: I could not argue otherwise, Socrates.

Socrates: Then wouldn’t you say that just as boat-building, and pottery, and baking involve a great deal of skill but also a measure of art, that translation is just the same?

Metaphrastos: That seems to be the logical conclusion Socrates.

Socrates: So then, it does not seem right for people to speak of translation solely as a ‘skill’ for this misses an important component, wouldn’t you say?

Metaphrastos: I think so Socrates.

Socrates: And this important component is about understanding things at a deeper level, and getting to the very soul of a thing, and understanding human nature, and emotion, and all of man’s complexities, and striving to do the very best with all of one’s love, care and attention?

Metaphrastos: Just as you have said, Socrates.

Socrates: Then it is thanks to you, my dear friend, for curing my ignorance and putting my mind at ease. Now let us venture into the market and talk to Aristoboulos, for I want to ask him whether a man must be ‘good’ in order to make a ‘good’ translation…

[This imaginary dialogue is dedicated to the staff and students of ‘LANG3001: Translation across Languages’, which is currently being taught at the Australian National University. It is a pleasure to be teaching into the course and reflecting on the ‘philosophy of translation’.]


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