Often enough works of literature, particularly old classics, receive renewed translations. Sometimes, the older translation might contain mistakes. And sometimes, the work being an old classic, the mistakes have become famous as part of the work of literature.

For example, English-speakers know that the plot of the first part of The Three Musketeers revolves around the diamond studs that Queen Anne d'Autriche has given to the Duke of Buckingham. Only, there were no diamond studs - those were diamond aglets. (See more on this here on Literature.SE.) Trouble is, 'studs' has already made it into multiple movies, comics, common knowledge.

How is a translator to treat such a situation? Does he correct the old mistake, or does he keep to what the public already "knows", since it's become so famous?

3 Answers 3


The mistake should be corrected if one thinks that it would improve the translation. It does not even have to be a mistake; the translator can do as he or she pleases, as long as they can offer a good explanation for what they're doing.

Since I don't know much about translation errors of The Three Musketeers, I give you a different example: that of Homer's Odyssey. The first popular English translations used romanized names like "Ulysses" and "Jupiter". This was not a mistake - at the time these translations were made, none of the readers would have known the Greek names, whereas there had been some contemporary works that had popularized the Roman names. Nowadays, the general knowledge of ancient Greece has expanded and it has become more popular to use the actual Greek names. Samuel Butler, who wrote the translation that is available on Project Guttenberg, actually wrote in his preface about his decisions in this regard and said something like "maybe one day, hopefully, the Greek names will be more well-known than the Latin ones".

He also wrote about some difficulties that exist with the Greek names, however. He mentions that there are different cases in ancient Greek that change the name depending on how it is used. He notes that there actually isn't "one correct translation" for Odysseus, and that "Odysseus" itself is some kind of compromise that is only used because it is popular, not necessarily because it is correct. I can say that after reading that preface, I was a lot more content with reading all those romanized names.

There is also a new translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson. It was only recently released and is a very interesting take on the epic poem. It tries to re-introduce the meter that was originally used by Homer while also realizing that this meter straight-up doesn't work in English because of the way most words are pronounced and emphasized in English. So the result was to use a different meter, which has one syllable less per verse (or something to that extent). But since ancient Greek is a much shorter language than English, it was not possible to make a nice "poetic" translation anymore with the meter restriction. Wilson instead made the poem unbelievably short and on-point, which increases the pace of the poem and makes it less grandiloquent.

Also, interestingly, she now translates what used to be translated to "servants" and "maids" simply to "slaves". She made a point of doing that because she wanted no sugar-coating of a problematic aspect of the poem. (And those women are definitely slaves. Odysseus kills them later because they had been raped.)

I'm telling you all of this because it shows how many different problems there can be when translating literature. It's not simply a choice of replacing one word with another. Sometimes, a translator may deliberately choose an incorrect translation because he knows it will help the reader, as was the case with Samuel Butler's translation. Emily Wilson instead chose to be radical because she wanted something that had been lost in translation - the original meter, which itself needed to be "translated" into English. And she wanted a modern translation that fits our times better than those of translators who still might have been slave owners themselves. Yes, there was some backlash against her translation, and I am also not happy with some of her choices. But it adds something that the other translations are lacking, and for this reason alone it is good that it exists.

Nobody starts a new translation because they want to keep everything the way it was. And nobody reads a new translation and expects a replica of the old one.

If you are actually translating The Three Musketeers at the moment, my suggestion is: change "studs" to "aglets" and make a footnote detailing what aglets are, and how they were used. Personally I love learning something new in my novels.


Let's look at the example from the Three Musketeers that you give.

Readers today probably wouldn't know what an aglet is. And if they knew, they would probably think of shoe laces and not know how aglets were worn on historic dresses. The answer by Peter Shor to the linked question is a good example for this: after doing some research, he wrongly assumes that the aglets in the Three Musketeers were worn as a decorative knot on the shoulder. My second answer to that questions contains an illustration that shows how these aglets were really worn. Not something that a modern reader would ever think of without doing quite a bit of informed research.

So what would you achive if you "corrected" that mistranslation?

Readers today understand perfectly well what "diamond studs" are and how they might have been worn. Using "diamond studs" in a translation gives readers an object they understand and can dismiss, while "aglets" would constantly irritate them.

You certainly could provide a footnote, ideally with an illustration, but nothing would have been gained by that for the average reader who wants to read Dumas' novel as an adventure tale. Because whether or not the objects were actually studs or aglets is completely irrelevant to the story. So "diamond studs" does for readers today what ferrets (possibly) did for French readers in 1844: they provide a working MacGuffin.

To me, "correcting" the studs to aglets would make the Three Musketeers unnecessarily difficult to read for readers today.

Answers for other passages from other texts will be different.

For example many popular Bible translations, such as the King James versoin, have become familiar to readers but are often completely wrong and distort the meaning of the original text. For that reason scholars have rightfully sought to establish new translations to reflect advances in scholarship. Not correcting a mistaken Bible translation would be criminally negligent, as wars have been legitimized by the contents of that book.


How is a translator to treat such a situation? Does he correct the old mistake, or does he keep to what the public already "knows", since it's become so famous?

西游记 (English Translation: Journey to the West) has a cast of main characters. Anglophones may know these characters as Tripitaka, Monkey King, Pigsy, and Sandy, probably because an early translator thought it would be cool to translate the names semantically instead of transliterate those names into Latin characters, using some kind of romanization. However, in modern times, this practice may be highly controversial. This translator explains in great depth about "name translations" of Chinese novels and web novels: https://youtu.be/mmPB-3jtSMc

Personally, I think the English names are doing a disservice to the original Chinese literature. Tripitaka refers to 唐三藏. 三藏 refers to the Buddhist scriptures known as "tripitaka". 唐 refers to the Tang dynasty. Yes, this guy has a "surname" given by the emperor, as well as a birth name. Monkey King refers to 美猴王, which is also translated as "beautiful monkey king". But the problem is the word 美. It does not necessarily mean "beautiful". It can also mean "good" or "great". 美猴王 is that monkey's self-appellation. Sun Wukong refers to 孙悟空. Pigsy refers to 猪八戒/猪悟能. 猪悟能 is the name that he is given when he becomes a member of the Buddist club. Sandy refers to 沙悟净. Note the generation name. As you can see, note how much you have lost if you transliterate only one name into English, and note how much more you have lost if you translate the name into English. Puns are entirely removed, as they are completely untranslatable.

However, the well-known name translation still has some merit, because it links the old name with the character. I think newer translations should at least provide a footnote about the name, because in reality, in the original novel, there is no "Tripitaka". There is no "Monkey King". There is no "Sandy". And there is no "Pigsy". A footnote would be important, because "Sandy" sounds like a girl's name, and the character is male. There must be an explanation for this in the translation.

  • Sandy wasn't always a girl's name — it used to be a nickname for Alexander. Mar 24, 2019 at 22:40
  • Modern readers would find "Sandy" a girl's name.
    – Double U
    Mar 24, 2019 at 23:40
  • The first translation was done 75 years ago, when there were a lot more male Sandys around (there were a lot of female ones, too). I don't really see why it needs an explanation, although one wouldn't hurt. Mar 25, 2019 at 1:06
  • His name is still not "Sandy". My main point is, stop "translating" Chinese names.
    – Double U
    Mar 25, 2019 at 2:00

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