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I struggle with a passage in a text that I gave in three translations. In one, the original word is kept, but as it's ancient Greek and I don't speak Greek I had to look it up. In the other two different words with corresponding meanings were chosen, but they carry much different connotations from another.

A similar thing happens for example when trying to translate the Japanese term Zanshin(sp?) which is in Martial Arts a concept of battle awareness but also preparedness and center and about a dozen other things.

How should one deal with such words where short translations don't come close to convey the actual meaning of what is written in the original?

  • Is adding an explanatory footnote an option? – Llewellyn Jul 26 at 13:38
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    @Llewellyn is that an attempt to answer? – Trish Jul 26 at 16:15
  • No, that was an honest question. But sure, I've added an answer. :) – Llewellyn Jul 26 at 17:32
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This is a consistent problem with ancient texts. Translation carries a greater burden of interpretation and analysis the older a text is, because we have to bring across parts of the ancient worldview that are unfamiliar to modern readers. Commentary is essential, but you have to decide the correct scale for it. Quick commentary can be done parenthetically, in either of these forms (I'll use the Four Noble Truths to exemplify):

  • "Life is dukkha (literally 'discontentment,' though the term is often translated as suffering)."
  • "Life is suffering (dukkha, implying discontent, misery, or similar states)."

Neither is 'better'; use the first if you want readers to focus on the difficulty of the word, and the second if you want them to focus on the passage as a whole and just be aware of the translation difficulty. Somewhat longer commentary should be shuffled off to footnotes, so that it is available but doesn't destroy the flow of the text. If the ancient sense of the term is central to your argument, then you should give the quote using the original term, and then spend a paragraph or two afterwards discussing the nuances of the term.

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If translating would lose too much information, consider option 3: Leave the term untranslated, but add a footnote to explain what it means. (If you have a lot of these untranslateable words, you could also add a glossary and point to that.)

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