Fidelity Challenges in Translation | January 2015 | Translation Journal

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Fidelity Challenges in Translation

Translation Journal Fidelity Challenges


Much as the idea of absolute exactitude in translation is said to be utopian and unattainable, it is always desirable to achieve a reasonable and an acceptable level of fidelity in any translation operation whatsoever, be it literary, pragmatic or scientific and technical translation. In other words, the fidelity of a translation to its original text means the quality of its accuracy or the degree of its closeness to the original text. However, it has been observed that achieving this feat poses significant challenges to the translator. This article establishes the pertinence of fidelity in translation, as a hallmark of quality, which defines the professional worth of the translator. It also identifies major fidelity indicators in translation and the significant challenges, which they pose. Finally, the article proposes ways of meeting the fidelity challenges in translation.

Key words: Translation, fidelity, fidelity indicators, fidelity challenge, stress, translation tools


Viewed from a moral standpoint, fidelity implies faithfulness or being loyal to someone or something. It is borrowed from the idea of a wife being faithful to her husband and vice versa, or a soldier being loyal to his commander. Fidelity in this context means the extent to which a translator accurately renders a source language text into a target language text, without distorting, violating or betraying the message as well as the style of the source language text. It could also be viewed as the level or degree of thematic and stylistic conformity of the translation to or its compliance with the original text. Therefore, every translator is primarily faced with fidelity challenges during any translation operation.


2.1 Definition of Translation

Translation could be viewed as a process and/or an end product. Viewed as both a process and end product, Jacques Flamand (1983:50) defines translation this way, « …rendre le message du texte de départ avec exactitude (fidélité à l’auteur) en une langue d’arrivée correcte, authentique et adaptée au sujet de la destination (fidélité au destinataire)». (…rendering the message of the source language text (process) with exactitude (faithful to the author) into a correct and authentic target language (product), which is adapted to the target language public (faithful to the public) (translation mine).

Seen by Nida, “translation is the production in the target language of the closest natural equivalent to the message of the source language, first to meaning and then to style” (qtd. in Horgulin and Bernard (1977:30).

Whereas Mounin perceives translation as “…le passage d’un monde culturel à l’autre” (the passage from one cultural world into another), Malinowski argues that it is “the unification of cultural contexts” (qtd. in Robins (1976: 27)).

Peter Newmark (1998:5) opines that translation “is rendering the meaning of a text into another language in the way that the author intended the text”. Schulte (1992:6) considers it as the “transplantation of a text from one language into another”. For Saint Jerome, “translation meant appropriating ideas and insights from another culture to enrich one’s own language” (qtd. in Schulte (1992:2). Friedrich Schileiermacher insists that “the translator’s goal must be to provide his reader with the same pleasure as reading the work in the original language offers to the man educated in this way” (qtd. in Schulte (1992:6)).

As for Seleskovitch and Lederer (1986 :62), translation is seen as, “Restituer le sens dans une autre langue, c’est le rendre intelligible sur deux plans; c’est le faire comprendre sans rendre brumeux ce qui était clair, ni ridicule ce qui était digne”. (Restoring meaning in another language is to render it intelligible at two levels: to make it comprehensible without rendering obscure that which is clear, nor ridiculous that which is worthy (Translation mine)).

Henri Van. Hoof (1989:74) postulates thus, «La traduction est un acte de communication bilingue». (Translation is an act of bilingual communication). To translate means “…faire que ce qui était énoncé dans une langue le soit dans une autre, en tendant à l’équivalence sémantique et expressive de deux énoncés” (Paul Robert (1976 :1810)). (…to ensure that what is said in one language is reproduced in another, based on semantic and expressive equivalents of both utterances. Theoretically, Catford (1965:20) views translation as “the replacement of textual material in one language by equivalent textual material in another language”. Wikipedia, free Encyclopaedia perceives translation as “the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text.”

Taking cognizance of the various facets of and insights into the subject of translation highlighted in the above definitions given by different experts, one may consider translation as the rendering in writing of a source language text into the target language, with a view to preserving, as much as possible, the source language message and style. In this sense, translation is considered as a language barrier breaker, carrying along with it the author’s message and style of writing. In another sense, translation could also be viewed as a linguistic bridge linking speakers of different languages and enabling them to move from one language to another.

2.2 The Place of Fidelity in Translation

Over the years, the notion of fidelity in translation has been a major theme of many local, national and international conferences around the world. In other words, the question of fidelity in translation has continued to dominate theoretical debates among translation theorists and practitioners. For instance, in 1959, the International Federation of Translators organized such a conference in Bad Godesberg, Germany. During the session, some of the participants expressed the view that for a translation to be considered worthwhile, it has to be exact to the original text. One of the proponents of this view was George Mounin, who considered absolute fidelity to the entire source language text to be the primary quality of translation. This was how he put it, "In our translations, like women, we must be perfect in both faithfulness and beauty" (qtd in Albir (1990:14)). Later on, Cary (1963:54) upheld Mounin’s view by suggesting that the most fundamental elements of quality in translation include fidelity, exactness and equivalence. In his own contribution to this hot debate, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1959:76) emphasized fidelity to the whole of the text rather than its parts. For him, ‘fidelity cannot be found in literalness, but rather in adequate equivalencies from one language to another.’ In his own definition of translation, Jacques Flamand (1983:50) emphasized the idea of rendering the message of the source language text with exactitude.

The above views expressed by Mounin, Cary and Flamand seem to raise more questions than they have tried to settle. These include the question of “perfection” and the attainment of “exactness” in translations. Is it possible to produce a perfect translation, which is thematically and stylistically exact to the original text? A translation regarded as “perfect” or “exact” today, will it continue to remain so in the next century? What about cultural divergences and their implications? Assuming a source language text such as a novel or a newspaper is given to several translators to render, will they all produce identical texts, all of which are exact to the source language text?

At the other end of the debate table, however, existed another school of thought, which expressed a contrary view by postulating the theory of untranslatability in translation. They bluntly disagreed with the view that translation is possible in the first place, let alone being faithful or exact. According to Wikipedia, free encyclopedia, untranslatability is a property of a text or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated. Therefore, any attempt at translating such a word or expression will amount to betrayal. An Italian aphorism, “Traduttore, traditore!” (Translator, traitor!), tends to support this view by insinuating that every translation is fatally infidel and, therefore, betrays the intention of the author of the original text. A similar French aphorism, “Traduire c’est trahir” (To translate is to betray), also postulates that every translation is a betrayal of the original text. In other words, fidelity has no place at all in translations, according to this school of thought.

Hence, two contrary or opposing views emerged, that is, the proponents of exactitude in translation on the one hand, and those who do not believe that translation is even possible at all, on the other hand.

However, another group of intellectuals came up with some sort of mediatory ideas designed to reconcile the two opposing views. According to this school of thought, translation is quite possible, but aiming at a hundred percent accuracy or exactitude in translation is rather utopian and unrealistic. For instance, Nida (1969:47) has this to say on the subject of absolute fidelity in translation:

If we must insist on a translation without any loss of information, therefore, not only translation, but also all communication will be effectively impossible, because no communication whatsoever…may take place without some loss (or gain) of information. The loss (or gain) of information is an integral part of the process of communication.

For Newmark (1998:6), “A satisfactory translation is always possible, but a good translator is never satisfied with it. It can usually be improved. There is no such thing as a perfect, ideal or ‘correct’ translation”.

In spite of all the heated arguments and debates over the role of fidelity in translation, the phenomenon has stood its ground as the most important characteristic, hallmark and indicator of quality in translation. Therefore, the challenge facing any translator worthy of that name is to strive to attain an acceptable level of fidelity in their translations. Indeed, it will not be an overstatement to say that the professional value of any translator is defined or measured by the level or degree of fidelity attained in his translations. However, one should note that whereas absolute translation is impossible, all translations are subject to perfection.

One can state without fear of contradiction that the translation of certain texts such as legal, religious, medical and pharmaceutical texts, demand higher levels of fidelity than literary texts do. By virtue of their nature, a wrong translation of such a text can result in disastrous consequences. Now, let us consider the following views on religious and scientific translations respectively to buttress the point we are making.

2.3 Vatican Views on the Translation of the Bible vis-à-vis Fidelity

In an article entitled “The 1997 Norms for Translations of Bible Texts for Use in the Liturgy” (, the Vatican expresses its views on the translation of the Bible vis-à-vis fidelity. Below is an excerpt taken from the said article.

The Church must always seek to convey accurately in translating the texts she has inherited from the biblical, liturgical and patristic tradition and instruct the faithful in their proper meaning. The first principle with respect to biblical texts (that is) Biblical translations should be faithful to the original language and to the internal truth of the inspired text...

As far as the translation of the Bible or its portions is concerned, the Vatican demands “maximum possible fidelity” and nothing less, because the belief of the adherents hinges on the provisions of the text.


Regarding the translation of scientific and technical texts vis-à-vis fidelity, Simpson (1978:5) argues that it is often a matter of life and death. Here is his submission.

The translation of scientific and technical texts demands precision as certain errors on the part of the translator could bring about tragic consequences. The translator of directions for use of machines and instruments ... methods for repairing aircraft or complicated machines finds himself entrusted with the responsibility of attaining a level of exactitude, which is higher than that required of a literary translator. For example, to say then that scientific/technical translation is often a matter of life and death is nothing but an indisputable truth.

The pertinent question arising from the above discussions is, “What are the indicators of fidelity in translation?”

4.0 Fidelity Indicators in Translation

An indicator is something, which shows the existence or presence of another thing. It could also be described as a benchmark by which the quality, quantity or level of something can be determined, judged, measured or verified. In this context, fidelity indicators are those identifiable characteristics in a translation, which show the extent to which a translation is faithful or close to the original text, with regard to the message and style. Highlighting a general view on fidelity indices in translation, Teresa Cabré Castellví (2003:172) has this to say:

In relation to its original, it is said that a translation — and technical translations are no exception—must be literal regarding its content, appropriate regarding its expression, adequate regarding the register and precise regarding the rhetoric of the receptor community so that a translated text is fully comparable to a text originally written in the target language. In order to achieve this objective it is evident that a translator must use the appropriate terminology (that of the specialists of the target community), the same range of variation of expression (unless the text is destined for a different receptor function) and a selection of designative structures most appropriate to the text type.

Now, let us consider some of the indicators of fidelity in translation.

4.1 Factual Accuracy

In my judgment as a stakeholder in the business of translation, the most pertinent, relevant and constant fidelity indicator in any translation, especially scientific/technical translation, is what I may call factual accuracy. By this, I mean that the data (facts and figures) in the translation must be as accurate and verifiable as those contained in the source language text. Factual accuracy applies mostly to translations involving facts and figures or numerical codes as in date, temperature, currency, weight, length, area, volume, distance, etc., especially when converting from one category of physical system of measurement to another such as imperial to metric, Roman numeral to Arabic numeral, digital to analogue, etc.

In addition, factual accuracy has to do with the authenticity of message or information in the target language text vis-à-vis the source language text. Hence, one of the most serious challenges facing a translator is to capture factual accuracy in his translation. Therefore, it is recommended that a competent specialist should vet the translation in order to ensure that the message, information, facts and figures are accurate. For instance, after translating a legal document or a forensic report, an experienced legal practitioner and a forensic expert respectively should be engaged to vet the translations in order to ensure factual accuracy.

4.2 Correctness

Another important fidelity indicator in translation is the level of correctness achieved by the translator in the target language text. A faithful translation should be devoid of all avoidable errors: grammatical, structural, orthographic, etc. To meet the challenge of achieving correctness in the translation, it is highly recommended that a language specialist be engaged to review it before turning the translation in to the client.

4.3 Harmony

A translation is said to be in harmony with the original text if no part of it contradicts, violets or falls out with any part of the original text in terms of the message and style, especially the message. For instance, for translation to be in harmony with the original text, deliberate or apparent loss or gain of information should be avoided. Therefore, on no account and for no reason whatsoever should the translator deliberately modify, alter, falsify or attempt to improve upon the message of the original text.

4.4 Transparency

If a source language text and its target language equivalent are placed side by side, an uninformed person will not be able to differentiate between the original text and its translation due to their closeness. Such a translation is said to be transparent. Attaining transparency in translation is a major challenge, which could be met by the translator through diligence, assiduity and meticulous care.

4.5 Tonality

Tonality refers to the quality of a person’s voice, which expresses their sentiments, feelings, attitudes or thoughts, especially in a dialogue situation. For instance, the tone of a person’s utterance could show that they are happy, afraid, bitter, sympathetic, aggressive, in love, friendly, etc. In the same manner, if the tone of a source language text expresses happiness, fear, bitterness, sympathy, aggression, love or friendliness, etc., then the challenge here is that the tone of its translation must also reflect the same. Let us take for instance, the translation of a drama piece. If an utterance in the original text elicits tears or laughter, joy or sadness, love or hatred, hope or desperation, from the source language audience, then the same utterance, when translated, is supposed to elicit the same responses from the target language audience, unless such a reaction is forbidden due to some cultural, political, legal, religious or any other consideration.

4.6 Admissibility

A faithful translation should not contain items that are culturally, religiously, ideologically or socially inadmissible or offensive in the source language community. These include taboos, offensive or abusive expressions; expressions that ridicule people’s religious and/or ideological beliefs; expressions that could corrupt the minds of your readers, especially children; expressions that could incite hatred, animosity, violence or war, especially if such expressions mean something else in the source language text.


A challenge is a very difficult task, which requires physical and mental efforts, special ability, courage, skill and initiative in handling. Thus, one can talk of security challenges, health challenges, financial challenges as well as fidelity challenges in translation. Therefore, fidelity challenge in translation may be defined as the difficulty experienced by a translator in his efforts to attain a reasonable/acceptable level of accuracy in his translation. Fidelity challenges in translation may be classified into two categories: external and internal (or self-inflicted) challenges. External challenges could arise from the nature of a source language text itself and the tools employed by the translator. For instance, if a source language text is relatively large, dry, abstract, complex, highly philosophical or scientific and technical, it is likely going to pose significant challenges to the translator. Also, using inadequate, obsolete or faulty translation tools in translating, could be quite frustrating. It will be aberrant to use a dictionary published in the sixties for the translation of a source language text based on computer terminology.

Internal (or self-inflicted) challenges could arise from (i) the translator’s shallow knowledge of either one or both languages; (ii) working under stress; (iii) turning in a translation that has not been revised. A translator, who is not proficient in the source and target languages, will certainly face an intimidating challenge in translation operations. In order to make as much money as possible, some translators work under stress.

In dealing with and overcoming fidelity challenges in translation, a lot depends on the translator himself. For instance, he should do everything possible to reduce internal or self-inflicted challenges as shown above. Furthermore, he should engage the services of professionals to review his translation before turning it in.


We have tried in this article to establish the pertinence of fidelity in translation as well as identify the major fidelity indicators in translation. One can state without fear of contradiction that fidelity, as a hallmark of quality in translation, has no alternative. However, achieving it poses significant challenges for the translator. Hence, the article also proposed a number of ways of overcoming fidelity challenges in translation.

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About Dr. Enoch Ajunwa

Dr. Enoch Ajunwa Translation Journal

Dr. Enoch Ajunwa is an Associate Professor of French Language and Translation and former Head, Department of Modern European Languages, Faculty of Arts, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State of Nigeria. He hails from Otampa in Isuikwuato Local Government Area of Abia State, Nigeria.

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