Steiner – History of Translation


Biography of George Steiner

  • grew up with 3 mother tongues: German, English, & French
  • escaped the Nazi’s regime
  • Studied literature, mathematics, & physics

Steiner’s theories (in brief) (from Susan Bassnett’s Translation Studies 4th ed.)

  • Four periods of historical translation
    1. Cicero and Horace to the publication of Alexander Fraser Tytler’s Essay on the Principles of Translation in 1791
    2. up to Larboard’s Sous l’invocation de Saint Jerome in 1946
    3. publication of first papers on machine translation in the 1940s
    4. (coexisting w/ 3rd) early 1960s ‘a reversion to hermeneutic, almost metaphysical inquiries into translation and interpretation’ (Bassnett 51)

Chapter 4: The Claims of Theory, After Babel

1. First period: Cicero and Horace

  • Cicero: not to translate verbum pro verbo
  • Horace: Ars poetica
  • Hölderlin: enigmatic commentary on his own translations from Sophocles (1804)

Three major theoretic texts: 

Leonardo Bruni’s De interpretatione recta of c.1420

Pierre Daniel Huet’s De optimo genere interpretandi (1661)

Alexander Fraser Tytler’s Essay on the Principles of Translation

& Schleiermacher’s Uber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersetzens

2. Second Period: Theory & Hermeneutic inquiry (to Sous l’invocation de Saint Jerome of 1946)

  • Hermeneutic approach – what it means to ‘understand’ a piece of oral or written speech
    • diagnose in a general model of meaning

Can you fully ‘understand’ something in a model process? Or should it be a free interpretation depending on the text?

3. Third Period: Machine Translation

  • apply linguistic theory and statistics to translation
    • Is this to formal of an approach?
  • COEXISTING with fourth approach
  • Walter Benjamin + Heidegger + Gadamer = reversion to hermeneutic approach
  • Generative Grammar – ‘Universalist’ vs. ‘Relativist’ positions
  • Ronald Knox: Which should come first, the literary version or the literal; and is the translator free to express the sense of the original in any style and idiom he chooses?
    • Steiner believed this was an oversimplification

Religion in Translation

  • Pico – divinity through knowledge, speech is divine and numinous
    • Translation as blasphemy
  • “…arbitrarily selected but intensely conventionalized signals, meaning can never be wholly separated from expressive form.”

“ash is no translation of fire”

Poetry vs. Pros

  • philosophical texts (DQ)
    • abstract concepts defy illustration
    • ‘undecidable’ task of semantic reconstruction
  • understanding of philosophy – hermeneutical trial
  • translation as a teleological imperative

Translation as a mouthpiece for the word of God

  • Western theory and practice
  • From St. Jerome to Luther to etc.
  • Almost like Pico’s divinity through knowledge – translation is a key role in understanding the texts

Nicolas V (1447-55)

  • Lorenzo Valla translated Thucydides, Guarino translated Strabo, Niccolò Perotti was PAID 500 scud for he is Polybius, Valla and Pierro Candido Decembrio tried to translate the Iliad into Latin prose.



  • language-community seeks to enrich outside, the poet will celebrate the translator’s part in the “intertraffique of the minde”.
  • moral and culture excellence of translation

“Not everything can be translated.” 

  • sacrilegious texts
  • transpose or paraphrase – do more harm

Not Everything Can Be Translated Now

  • Today’s technology has not advanced, and we as a species have not either
  • “The source of the language and the language of the translator are in dual motion, relative to themselves and to each other.


  • Translation is a part of history

Ortega and Gassnet

  • Translation is ‘impossible’
  • all absolute concordance between thought and speech is ‘impossible’


  • Dolmetschen – commercial translation
    • interpréte
    • traducteur
    • truchement
  • Ubersetzen/Uebertragen

Translation as desirable and possible

  • what are appropriate techniques?
  • biases in technique choices, presupposition
  • what are the ideals or results being aimed for

schemes of translation

  1. literal
  2. sense for sense (translator’s own reproduction)
  3. imitation – recreation, “variation”

Ben Johnson’s translation of Horace’s Art of Poetry

  • literalism = self-defeating
  • Dryden – negative view of imitation (in contrast to Pound and Lowell)
    • societal confines and ideals hold translator to middle ground

Goethe (cont.)

  • first order of translation – transfer in “our own sense”
  • second order – absorbs the foreign work in order to put in his mother tongue
  • third order – abandon his mother tongue – leave it foreign
    • joining of first and third to make a HYBRID

Roman Jakobson

  • adopted ideas from Charles Sanders Pierce
  • linguistic sign -> to some sign more fully developed
  • reword- with other verbal signs within the same language
  • Translation proper – “interlingual translation” – interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs in some other language
  • transmutation– “intersemiotic” – verbal signs are interpreted in terms of non-verbal signs
  • “Every translation of a linguistic sing is, at some level, a ‘creative transposition'” (pg. 275)

Steiner contradicts himself on page 275, stating that there is one “inescapable question”. He criticized Ronald Knox for oversimplification. 

  1. In what ways can or out fidelity to be achieved?
  2. What is the optimal correlation between the A text in the source-language and the B text in the receptor-language?

Philosophy of Language

  • appropriate distance a translation has between foreign and domestic
  • keeping the expressive motion

Bible Translation

  • important to study the history and theory of translation

Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift within translation – maybe 3rd and 4th – machine translation & now

Wittgenstein – mathematical task as translation

  • solutions but no systematic method of finding solutions

The areas of neuro-biopsychology, computer translation and philosophical thought are modeling a new view of translation studies.


  • is key to understanding how translation theories work for different translators
  • how the brain uses & stores languages could potentially show how one thinks about the process of translation and the best instances to use a specific theory

Translation is “not a science but an exact art.”

Exact art – hitting toward scientific evidence of the neurochemistry of our brains


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About Tyler Candelora

Tyler Candelora is a first-year student at Bucknell University. He is from Coal Township, PA. He speaks English but is currently learning Spanish, French, and Arabic. Tyler is a comparative humanities and language major.

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