Beyond Words - Language Blog

10 Translation Quotes:Great Writers on the Art of Translation

Translation is a fine art of balancing the character of the original language and giving it new life in a fresh language. Many writers have expressed their opinions on the art of translation, and many great writers were, themselves, translators.

There doesn’t seem to be much consensus amongst the great minds when it comes to translation.

Some hard-liners claim that at its best, a translation amounts to an intellectual forgery, while others take the view that everything is, in fact, a translation — whether executed from experience to language, or from source to target.

Here, we’ve collected quotes from 10 authors and artists who voice their thoughts about the subtleties of translation:


The original is unfaithful to the translation.
Jorge Luis Borges, Argentinian writer, 1899-1986


Translation is the paradigm, the exemplar of all writing. It is translation that
demonstrates most vividly the yearning for transformation that underlies every act involving
speech, that supremely human gift.
Harry Mathews, American Novelist, 1930-


To translate, one must have a style of his own, for otherwise the translation will have no
rhythm or nuance, which come from the process of artistically thinking through and molding
the sentences; they cannot be reconstituted by piecemeal imitation. The problem of
translation is to retreat to a simpler tenor of one’s own style and creatively adjust this to
one’s author.
Paul Goodman, American Author, 1911-1972


Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself
translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the
original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and
one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat… where in this
metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches.
Ursula K. Le Guin, American Author, 1929-


What is lost in the good or excellent translation is precisely the best.
Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, German Poet, 1772-1829


Poetry cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages;
for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language if we could have all that is written in
it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any
language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.
Samuel Johnson, English Author, 1709-1784


Translation is at best an echo.
George Borrow, English Author, 1803-1881


A translation is no translation, he said, unless it will give you the music of a poem along
with the words of it.
John Millington Synge, Irish Writer, 1871-1909


Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the
meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.
Voltaire, French Philosopher, 1694-1778


If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.
Rene Magritte, 1898-1967