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Putting Translation Under the Microscope: "The Wheel of Difficulty"

By Eric W. Vogt

This article is inspired by another translation analogy, proposed originally by Dr. Margaret S. Peden, which explains why some texts are more difficult than others to translate. It is useful for translators because it provides a way of thinking through the problems each type of text presents.

What's Tough to Translate?

Some texts are more difficult to translate than others. Dr. Peden's experience is not unique. Most translators who deal with a range of literature will recognize the truth of what she named the wheel of difficulty back in 1982. What follows is a brief explanation of that model -- with examples of my own of each text type.

According to this model, there are five types of literary texts in terms of what linguists would call register. Beginning with the easiest texts, and moving in a clockwise circle, she places parody, satire and burlesque. In second place, she places the mythic/poetic texts, then what she called normal, for lack of a better term (normal texts say what they mean and have little connotation, simple expository texts). In fourth place, moving into still more difficult territory, she placed period texts (period pieces are texts written in the past that employ language unlike the same language is spoken and written today). According to her model, the most difficult texts to translate are texts that employ colloquialisms -- that is, slang.

Thus, slang, the most difficult, lies alongside parody, satire and burlesque. Her reasoning was that they share a similar flavor and occupy a similar niche in a society, but their modus operandi are different in terms of vocabulary and style. Slang tends to be opaque and resist translation -- it is best understood by insiders and thus it looks inward as if to protect the member of a language group from snooping ears. Parody and satire are viewed as a means by which a society reveals its underbelly to itself -- and potentially to outsiders. The whole point of satire is to be revealing, albeit in an artistic way. Thus it is more transparent, even when it employs references to what later (German) translation theorists dubbed culturally sensitive units.

Examples of parody and satire would include the skits on Saturday Night Live. Mythic and poetic texts would include creation stories and legends generally, including fairy tales. Normal texts would include technical manuals, cookbooks and the front page of the newspaper. An example of a period text would be Shakespeare or Chaucer -- if one were translating them into some other language. Imagine that challenge! Colloquial speech would include the sports page of the newspaper or a sports reporter on TV -- If you're not a baseball fan, much of what is said will leave you feeling ... out in left field, so to speak.