Translators translate and interpreters are obstinate and uninformed

George Campbell Macaulay (6 August 1852 – 6 July 1915), also known as G. C. Macaulay, was a noted English classical scholar who produced a translation of Herodotus’ “The Histories” in 1890.

Aubrey de Sélincourt (7 June 1894 – 20 December 1962) was an English writer, classical scholar, and translator. Chiefly remembered for his translations of Herodotus' The Histories (1954), as well as Arrian's Life of Alexander the Great (1958), and Livy's The Early History of Rome among other works.

In The Histories both of these translators produced this sentence below, in Book One, describing the method of construction of the Great Pyramid of Cheops:


“On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent…”

It is a good 15 years since I explained how uninformed and insular it is for the T&I profession to loudly claim that “translators translate written texts while interpreters translate speech” and then confect exasperation every time they encounter a departure from this apparently arbitrary ruling. It is in complete conflict with so much real world evidence, including in this case two of the English speaking world’s most illustrious translators themselves.

I look forward to the day that translators and interpreters stop gazing at their navels, look outwards and start learning about the world they live in.

copyright © Chris Poole Translation