Newmark on translation methods

A continuum between the literal and the free

Posted by Neven Jovanović on October 14, 2016

Peter Newmark on translation, adapted for alignment

In his Textbook on Translation, Peter Newmark proposes to look at translation methods as a continuum between the emphasis on Source Language (SL) and the emphasis on Target Language (TL). Newmark then considers a scale of eight levels:

  1. Word-for-word translation (strongest emphasis on SL)
  2. Literal translation
  3. Faithful translation
  4. Semantic translation
  5. Communicative translation (emphasis on TL starts to dominate)
  6. Idiomatic translation
  7. Free translation
  8. Adaptation (strongest emphasis on TL)

Levels explained

Newmark provides the following descriptions of his levels (I quote from his book, ommiting mostly examples):

Word-for-word translation is often demonstrated as interlinear translation, with the TL immediately below the SL words. The SL word-order is preserved and the words translated singly by their most common meanings, out of context. Cultural words are translated literally.

Literal translation: the SL grammatical constructions are converted to their nearest TL equivalents but the lexical words are again translated singly, out of context.

Faithful translation attempts to reproduce the precise contextual meaning of the original within the constraints of the TL grammatical structures. It ‘transfers’ cultural words and preserves the degree of grammatical and lexical ‘abnormality’ (deviation from SL norms) in the translation. It attempts to be completely faithful to the intentions and the text-realisation of the SL writer.

Semantic translation differs from ‘faithful translation’ only in as far as it must take more account of the aesthetic value (that is, the beautiful and natural sound) of the SL text, compromising on ‘meaning’ where appropriate so that no assonance, word-play or repetition jars in the finished version. Further, it may translate less important cultural words by culturally neutral third or functional terms but not by cultural equivalents - une nonne repassant un corporal may become ‘a nun ironing a corporal cloth’ - and it may make other small concessions to the readership. The distinction between ‘faithful’ and ‘semantic’ translation is that the first is uncompromising and dogmatic, while the second is more flexible, admits the creative exception to 100% fidelity and allows for the translator’s intuitive empathy with the original.

Communicative translation attempts to render the exact contextual meaning of the original in such a way that both content and language are readily acceptable and comprehensible to the readership.

Idiomatic translation reproduces the ‘message’ of the original but tends to distort nuances of meaning by preferring colloquialisms and idioms where these do not exist in the original.

Free translation reproduces the matter without the manner, or the content without the form of the original.

Adaptation is the ‘freest’ form of translation. It is used mainly for plays (comedies) and poetry; the themes, characters, plots are usually preserved, the SL culture converted to the TL culture and the text rewritten.

An empirical perspective

Newmark does not write as a theoretician or a researcher, but as somebody with a lot of practical experience. His presentation of “methods” make it clear that he prefers some of them, distrusts others. It is equally clear that Newmark’s aims are primarily pedagogical. He wants to educate future translators, to lead them towards what he considers best.

For our purposes, however – because we need to offer our annotators of translations a common framework in which they will judge distances between the source and the target, for each individual word or phrase – Newmark’s scale can be simplified.

Scale of translation methods, simplified

It has to be noted that our categories have to be applicable to individual words and phrases. They are not meant to be assesments of a translation as a whole.

The proposition consists of three sets. The set 1-4 is inspired by Newmark and presents the actual continuum. The set 5-7 deals with translator’s omissions, additions, and (eventual) mistakes. The last category is reserved for truly interesting cases, as usual.

  1. Metaphrasis (word-for-word): closest to SL, independent of context (the chosen translation of a word or phrase would be applicable everywhere), retains syntactical structure of the SL as far as possible
  2. Faithful translation: close to SL, but dependent on context (without the surrounding words, we cannot predict that a translation will be chosen, though the solution can be found by reading a dictionary article), or adapting the syntactical structure to better suit the TL
  3. Idiomatic translation: solutions closer to TL than to SL, using language that is acceptable and comprehensible to SL readers
  4. Paraphrasis: reproduces the gist of the original, but distorts nuances of meaning and syntax
  5. Omissions: SL words or phrases omitted in the TL version
  6. Additions: TL words or phrases added
  7. Wrong: the translator made a mistake
  8. I don’t know.

Some examples should be provided.