Virgin Birth and Red Underpants — The Translator's Res­ponsibility in Shaping Our Worldview*

by Zsuzsanna Ardó

Belinda: Ay, but you know we must return good for evil.
Lady Brute: That may be a mistake in the translation.
— Sir John Vanbrugh: The Provoked Wife, Act I. Sc.i.

The Virgin Birth and Virgin Mary are, pardon the pun, pregnant with social symbolic significance in most, if not all, parts of the world. Whether you believe in them or not, they are solid social constructs, rehearsed endlessly in art, humour, everyday life, and language.

And yet their birth is due to a relatively simple mistake in translation. The Old Testament talks about almah ‚young woman,‘ not bethulah ‚virgin.‘ However, the scholars in the 3rd century BCE translated the Hebrew almah as parthenos in Greek.

Thus the ‚young woman‘ in Hebrew metamorphosed into a ‚virgin‘ in Greek—and she has remained a virgin ever since in translations across the world. The notion of ‚virgin birth‘ was born, thanks to a mistranslation.

Mistranslation is plentiful, painful and powerful, whether it shapes our way of seeing the world through the Bible or the bibles of our times—films. In an American cult movie, „You'll get the pink slip for Christmas“ is translated as „You'll get red underpants in Santa Claus' stocking.“ It must be a joke, I hear you say. No, I'm afraid, it is not. The ‚pink slip‘ (a notice of dismissal, American slang) has metamorphosed into ‚red underpants‘ in a famous action movie seen by millions and millions of people. Thanks to the translator's error, they envisage the hero in a pair of red underpants, not as getting fired by Christmas.

Albeit the difference between getting fired or getting a pair of red underpants may not be quite as substantial as the difference between a virgin and a non-virgin birth, it still does serious damage to the source text. Both examples above illustrate relatively simple nonetheless fundamental mistakes in translation. Objective mistakes. But a mistake is a mistake only when you become aware of it. Otherwise mistakes become part and parcel of our ongoing discursified thinking—of our language and thus symbolic cultural system. As the virgin birth has, and no doubt the red underpants will.

It is this—objective, verifiable translation criticism that Katharina Reiss' Translation Criticism focuses on. It is a pioneering classic in Translation Studies, in the translation of Erroll F. Rhodes, originally published in German in 1971 under the title Möglichkeiten and Grenzen der Übersetzungskritik. Kategorien und Kriterien für eine sachgerechte Beurteilung von Übersetzungen.

Reiss structures her multifarious categories and criteria into two main parts: The Potential of Translation Criticism and The Limitations of Translation Criticism. The potentials are elaborated on by focussing on the relationship between criticism and the target language text, criticism and the source language text, the extra-linguistic components and the extra-linguistic determinants.

The book provides many useful categories and criteria to structure thinking about the vital issue of translation criticism. But it is mostly locked into German references and quotes, and this makes the book feel a bit parochial. There is no reference made for example to the Sapir and Whorf hypothesis, although linguistic relativity throws up important questions of codability for the translator. The illustrative examples are taken from the „main European languages of English, French and Spanish. […] How far the principles developed are relevant to non-European languages remains open to question.“ (p.8. Italics mine.) Main European languages—in what sense? Non-European languages—in what sense non-European? These sloppy and slippery terms leave the reader puzzled as to why they have not been picked up by the editor of the book.

But the issues Reiss focuses on are undoubtedly vital. In translation criticism you are looking for talent in writing, sensitivity to language, internal consistency, semantic, structural and dynamic equivalence, creative recreation of the cultural allusions, the spirit of the original, precision in and mastery of style and grammar, idiomatic usage, fidelity to the intent of the original author and the text type—just to mention a few fundamental aspects of the incredibly complex and complicated process.

As Reiss points out, translation is a hermeneutic process, which is subjectively conditioned—and so is translation criticism. Translation is, in the final analysis, an interpretation, an appreciation of the source text. The translator infers from the text—she reads into it. Such a subjective hermeneutic process ultimately stands or falls not simply on the bicultural, professional linguistic knowledge, expertise and experience of the translator. These are naturally necessary but not sufficient to produce an acceptable translation. Since the translator filters the source text through herself during the hermeneutic process of the translation, the translator's per­sonality, mind-set and attitudes are all vital players in the game and can subvert the translation in many ways.

Thus the vulnerability of the source text to the translator cannot be underestimated. Hence the choice of the translator and translation criticism impact directly on the metamorphosis of the source into the target text, the young maiden into virgin Mary, and the dismissal slip into red underpants.

* First published by TJ Volume 5, No. 4 October 2001 © Zsuzsanna Ardó

Ref.: B. L. Whorf, J.B. Carroll (eds.) Language, Thought and Reality (1956) Translation Criticism—The Potentials and Limitations Categories and Criteria for Translation Quality Assessment By Katharina Reiss, 2000