Thirty Five of the Very Best Quotes on Translation

The title says it all really: “Thirty Five of the Very Best Quotes on Translation” – we actually set out to put together a list of just fifteen, but there was just so many that seemed to either make us smile and/or capture the essence of what it all-so-often feels like to portray one language in another, we ended up with another twenty!

Here’s Our Top Thirty Five:

(in no particular order)

“A translator ought to endeavor not only to say what his author has said, but to say it as he has said it.”

John Conington

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”

Mark Twain

“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.”

George Steiner

“To use the same words is not a sufficient guarantee of understanding; one must use the same words for the same genus of inward experience; ultimately one must have one’s experiences in common.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

“All translation is a compromise – the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic.”

Benjamin Jowett

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied.”

Noam Chomsky

“Translator, traitor.”

— Italian Proverb

“Translation is a disturbing craft because there is precious little certainty about what we are doing, which makes it so difficult in this age of fervent belief and ideology, this age or greed and screed.”

Gregory Rabassa

“The best thing on translation was said by Cervantes: translation is the other side of a tapestry.”

Leonardo Sciascia

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

Jorge Luis Borges

“The world cannot be translated; It can only be dreamed of and touched.”

Dejan Stojanović

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Italo Calvino

“It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us have no description.”

Alan Watts

“There can never be an absolutely final translation.”

Robert M. Grant

“The first rule of translation: make sure you know at least one of the bloody languages!”

Faiz Ahmad Faiz

“Humor is the first gift to perish in a foreign language.”

Virginia Woolf

“A translation in verse . . . seems to me something absurd, impossible.”

Victor Hugo

“All translating seems to me to be simply an attempt to accomplish an impossible task.”

Wilhelm von Humboldt

“Even the simplest word can never be rendered with its exact equivalent into another language.”

Kimon Friar

“In its happiest efforts, translation is but approximation, and its efforts are not often happy. A translation may be good as translation, but it cannot be an adequate reproduction of the original.”

George Henry Lewes

“In translation language facility is not enough; blood and sweat are the secret.”

Samuel Putnam

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carroll

“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”

Anthony Burgess

“There are three grades of translation evils: 1. errors; 2. slips; 3. willful reshaping”

Vladimir Nabokov

“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

“The language of translation ought never to attract attention to itself.”

John Hookham Frere

“The poet cannot hope to present his vision intact just as a translator can not hope to present the poet’s work unaltered.”

Kimon Friar

“Fidelity to meaning alone in translation is a kind of betrayal.”

Paul Valéry

“The translation called good has original value as a work of art.”

Benedetto Croce

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes”

Günter Grass

“A major difficulty in translation is that a word in one language seldom has a precise equivalent in another one.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

“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.”


“Translators have to prove to themselves as to others that they are in control of what they do; that they do not just translate well because they have a “flair” for translation, but rather because, like other professionals, they have made a conscious effort to understand various aspects of their work.”

Mona Baker

“It is impossible to translate poetry. Can you translate music?”


“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

“Translation is like a woman: if she is faithful, she is not beautiful; if she is beautiful, she is not faithful.”

— Russian Proverb