Are yours “Belle Infidèle” Translations?

In France, in the seventeenth century, the trend was to perform translations that were known as “belle infidèle” translations. In that time, the classical texts were considered to be outdated for the taste of the time, so they were freely translated in order to make them more “beautiful”, that is, more in line with the ideas reigning in that time, but which, of course, did not keep faith with the original text. As a result, those texts were not a translation, but rather a new different text. I remember perfectly these “belle infidèle” translations from the Translation History course at the university, and I still think of them very often, for example, when I receive texts from my customers for translation that are incorrectly written, disorganized, with agreement errors and, even, spelling mistakes. That is, when I receive “hideous” texts that, subsequently, following this old French school of translation, I turn into “beautiful but unfaithful” texts.

As is it not infidelity to turn a text that has been poorly written, punctuated, structured, resulting in a confused, disorganized one, i.e. a text that is difficult to read and understand, into a perfectly clear and legible text? And I have even less doubts in what regards to turning a “hideous” text with agreement errors and spelling mistakes, into a “beautiful” one, without those errors and mistakes. Not to mention the infidelity into which one falls by saving the bad image that the original text offers of the writer. Yes, I recognize that I feel like that Monsieur Perrot D’Ablancourt, who in the seventeenth century performed this kind of translations.

This is a very delicate issue as when a poorly written text is received for translation, and above all, a text that leads to confusion, one must deal with customers about this with a lot of care, as they may be offended. Never say that you have found errors in the text, but rather that you need clarification for some specific points of the text in order to do a correct translation. This is something that happened to me quite often when I worked for some software manufacturing firms. There were lots of specifications written by developers that I had to translate subsequently. A high number of them (as I also received perfectly written texts) was full of agreement errors, antecedents and consequents being mixed, that is, when mentioning something in singular, it was later referred to again in plural, which was confusing and required clarification. Developers are usually engineers who last studied language-related courses at high school, so those whose jobs require writing texts either read books or attend courses on this particular subject or the result will not be very good. And based on my experience, the latter case (those without writing skills) was the most frequent one, as they started to write without any previous planning, without having a clear objective in mind, by chaining ideas as they came to mind. The text could be perfectly understandable for them, but for the rest of us, it was incomprehensible.

In these cases, I had to go to their desks and seek clarification from them, as I said above, with a lot of care, with “people skills”, to prevent them from feeling uncomfortable. At the end of the day, they were also work mates and it was better to get along well with them. Then, I returned to my place to develop that idea, by organizing and shaping the text in order to link things correctly, to make it flow and be perfectly understood; to turn a dark text into a clear one. In sum, to perform “belle infidèle” translations.

Rubén Pedro López

Traductor Freelance: Ing > Esp > Ing Freelance Translator: Eng > Spa > Eng


  1. Dear Pedro, what you describe is actually the job every translator should perform in order to achieve a “fathful” translation. What is worse in my eyes, is when translators are criticized as “traitors” (traduttore-traitore) because of translating the “meaning” instead of sticking to words.

    • Hi Bernd, thanks for your comment! Yes, I think we could be called “traitors”, but in a positive sense, especially when texts are written by non-professional writers, as we turn non-professional texts into professional ones. It is as simple as this. And in our business this is quite a common situation.

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