Understanding vs. Comprehending: Old and New Conventions in Professional Translation

by brenton

When translating a document, a translator has the option of going with a more literal translation or one that more accurately expresses what a certain person is trying to say.  For example, the verb “comprendre” in French can be translated as “to comprehend” which seems more literal because the two words are so close in spelling.  However, it can also be translated as “to understand” because this is the verb which is more commonly used in English, as opposed to “comprehend.”

Understanding vs. Comprehending

Although the two words mean more or less the same thing, “understanding” can apply to something simple.  One can understand what it means to solve a puzzle or read a book.  Comprehending something has a more comprehensive quality about it and is used when you’re referring to something a bit difficult to understand.  You could comprehend the meaning of Plato’s definition of the perfect state in his seminal work, theRepublic.  But it sounds a little odd if you were to say that you comprehend how to make a peanut butter sandwich.

Earlier Conventions Emphasized Meaning

So what exactly should a translator do when faced with a verb like “comprendre”?  Should s/he translate it as “comprehend” or “understand”?  The convention in the translating world used to be the usage of whatever is more commonly used in the destination language.  Since “understand” is more commonly used in English, the translator would generally translate “comprendre” as “to understand.”  Nowadays, however, the conventions are changing and people have started realizing that you can maintain the flow and beauty of the source language if you translate more literally.

Recent Translations Take Into Account Beauty and Flow

Consider the following sentence taken from Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu: “je n’avais pas cessé en dormant de faire des réflexions sur ce que je venais de lire, mais ces réflexions avaient pris un tour un peu particulier.”  In an earlier translation, the translator avoided using a more complex word like “reflection” to translate “réflexion” and instead went with the word “thought,” saying, “I had gone on thinking while I was asleep, about what I had just been reading, but these thoughts had taken a rather peculiar turn.”

In a more recent translation, Lydia Davis decided to stick with something closer to the original, saying, “I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn.”  Davis chooses to retain the word “reflection” for “réflexion” and this maintains the beauty of the French language even in translation.

Of course, a translator must always consider exact meanings, but where possible, it’s a good idea to maintain this kind of beauty of the language too.  Contact us for professional translations that will take both, accuracy of meaning and beauty of language into account.

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