Advancing the Theory of Fidelity Erosion in Translation | July 2015 | Translation Journal

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Advancing the Theory of Fidelity Erosion in Translation

Advancing the Theory of Fidelity Erosion in Translation


Although absolute fidelity is generally believed to be unattainable in translation operations, fidelity has stood the test of time as a worthwhile ideal for all translation efforts. It is also regarded as a hallmark of good translation. Hence, one can state without fear of contradiction that the professional worth of any translator hinges intrinsically on or is measured by the level of fidelity, which they can attain in translation operations. However, the poor quality of many translations has always been attributed to different linguistic and cultural factors as well as the translator’s shallow knowledge of either one or both the source and target languages. It is against this background that this article, using hypothetical concentric circles, sought to advance the theory of fidelity erosion in translation. It equally examined some of the human, linguistic and cultural agents and factors that lead to fidelity erosion in translation.


Translation, fidelity, fidelity erosion, concentric circle, ambiguity, faux-amis, language interference.


Compared with other academic disciplines, translation studies could be said to be relatively young, although its practice could have started quite earlier, after the emergence of writing. Translation studies deals with theoretical reflections on as well as methodological approaches to translating, from both analytical and critical perspectives. It equally highlights the important and indispensable role, which translation plays in the contemporary multilingual world, especially, as a language barrier breaker, which ultimately brings about mutual intelligibility among peoples from different speech communities of the world.  Thus, one can say, without fear of contradiction, that translation contributes immensely to human development at various levels, including scientific, technological, political, ideological, literary, linguistic, commercial, economic and other levels. However, it has been observed that it is impossible to attain absolute exactitude in translation because there is always some degree of “gain or loss of information” (Nida) in translations. 

In this paper, we intend to advance the theory fidelity erosion in translation by examining some of the human, linguistic and cultural agents and factors, which tend to erode the level of fidelity in translation operations.


Our theoretical reflections will be organized around the following questions, whose answers will provide the theoretical framework on which this paper will be based. What is translation?  To what extent is it relevant to human development? What is fidelity in translation? What human, linguistic and cultural agents and factors erode fidelity in the translation process? How can one reduce fidelity erosion in translation?

2.1 Definition of Translation

Flamand (1983 :50) perceives  it  as 

“... rendre le message du texte de départ avec exactitude (fidélité à l’auteur) en une langue d’arrivée correcte, authentique et adaptée au sujet de la destination (fidélité au destinataire)” [...the rendering of the source language message, with precision, into an authentic error-free target language, which is adapted to the target language public (translation ours).

For  Nida (1977:30),  “translation is the production in the target language of the closest natural equivalent to the message of the source language, first to meaning and then to style.”  According to Newmark (1998:5), translation consists in “... rendering the meaning of a text into another language in the way that the author intended the text”.  Schulte (1992:6) considers translation as the “... transplantation of a text from one language to another”.  Whereas  “...translation  meant appropriating ideas and insights from another culture to enrich one’s own language” for Jerome  (quoted in  Schulte 1992:2),  Malinowski considers translation as “the unification of cultural contexts” (quoted in Robins 1976: 27).   Friedrich Schileiermacher (in Schulte 1992:63) insists that “...the translator’s goal must be to provide his reader with the same pleasure as reading the work in the original language offers to the man educated in this way...”. Van Hoof (1989:74) postulates that translation is “an act of bilingual communication”. 

A holistic analysis of the above definitions shows that the terms “message,” “meaning,” “communication” and “style” are predominant essence of translation. In other words, translation means the written communication of the message or meaning of a source language text into a correct and acceptable version of the target language. 

2.2 Types of Translation

Typologically, translation could be classified into three categories: interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic translations. Quoting Jacobson, Hatim et al (2006:5) distinguished them as follows:

Intralingual translation: translation within the same language, which can involve     rewording or paraphrasing

Interlingual translation: translation from one language to another, and

Intersemiotic translation: translation of the verbal sign by a non-verbal sign, for example    music or image. Only the second category is deemed ‘translation proper’ by Jacobson.

Therefore, our focus in this research is on interlingual translation.

2.3 The Role of Translation in our Multilingual Contemporary World

In our multilingual contemporary society, translation performs a wide range of useful functions. To start with, it breaks down linguistic and cultural barriers existing between peoples from different speech communities of the world, thereby bringing about mutual intelligibility and understanding as well as international co-operation among peoples of the world. Also, translation has become a significant instrument for the spreading of culture: scientific and technological, material, linguistic, political, economic, religious as well as other forms of culture. For instance, in the course of our civilization, “...translation came to be used as a weapon in both dogmatic and political conflicts as nation states began to emerge ...” (Susan Bassnet-McGuire1980:47).  Some of the emerging nation states rejected Latin as a universal language. This development led to the translation of the Bible and other great books into other languages such as English, German, French, etc. Thus, translation is instrumental to the rapid spreading of the gospel worldwide today.  Another example is the translation of Chinua Achebe’s  Things Fall Apart into French as Le monde s’éffondre. The French version of the work has fictionally revealed to the francophone world an insight into the socio-cultural, political and economic organization of life in a pre-colonial Igbo society.  In a multilingual nation state such as Nigeria, India or Senegal, the translation of the national constitution into the various local languages invariably leads to political consciousness and enlightenment as well as national unity.  The phenomenon, whereby one language borrows from another, leads to the linguistic and cultural cross-fertilization of languages. Pedagogically, translation plays a very vital role, especially in the teaching of foreign languages. For instance, some abstract concepts or notions in a foreign language cannot possibly be explained by means of pictures or demonstrations alone. Hence, the teacher translates them into the local language of the learner. Also, the teacher cannot but translate some difficult foreign language expressions such as idioms, proverbs and other figures of speech.  However,  I am not suggesting that translation is the most effective method of foreign language teaching, neither should it replace other methods such as the audio-visual method, communicative approach and more direct methods.

2.4 What is fidelity?

Viewed from the moral standpoint, fidelity implies faithfulness or loyalty towards someone or something.  It is borrowed from the idea of a woman being faithful or loyal to her husband and vice versa or a soldier being faithful and loyal to his commander. Fidelity in this context means the extent to which a translator accurately renders the meaning of a given source language text into a target language text, without distortion or betrayal of the message and style of the source language text. The notion of fidelity in translation was the major theme of an international conference on translation organized in 1959 by the International Federation of Translators, in which George Mounin (1968: 53) considered absolute fidelity to the entire source language text to be the primary quality of translation.  This is how he put it, "In our translations, like women, we must be perfect in both faithfulness and beauty" (quoted in Albir 1990:14).

At the other end of the table existed another school of thought, which postulated the theory of untranslatability in translation.  According to Wikipaedia, free encyclopaedia, untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated. For them, translating is betraying.

However, Jacques Flamand (1983: 50) disagrees with the above views, stating that translation is possible, but that it is unrealistic to aim at absolute fidelity, especially in literary translation.  Also, Nida (1976:47) has this to say on the subject of absolute fidelity in translation:

If we must insist on a translation without any loss of information, therefore, not only  translation, but all communication will be effectively impossible, because no     communication whatsoever … may take place without some loss of information. The  loss of information is an integral part of the process of communication.


Erosion is “the gradual wearing away of rock or soil by physical breakdown, chemical solution, and transportation of material, as caused, e.g. by water, wind, or ice” (Microsoft Encarta E-Dictionary). One can apply this situation to translation by saying that erosion takes place if the level of fidelity is reduced during a translation process by such factors as the translator’s shallow knowledge of one or both languages, their shallow knowledge of the subject-matter being translated, faulty translation tools being used, lack of professional training and exposure, as well as other intellectual, cultural and linguistic factors. Meanwhile, the theory of fidelity erosion in translation can be demonstrated using the following simple experiment.

3.1 Experiment

The same source language text was given to three different final year undergraduate students of translation to render into a specified target language as part of their final degree examination. The three of them were subjected to the same conditions in terms of the time allowed for the translation and the translation tools (e.g. dictionaries, etc.) used. After the examination, the same benchmark was used as marking guide for evaluating, judging or determining the level of fidelity attained in each of the three translations. This experiment was repeated severally, using different types of texts taken from novels, poems, plays, constitutions, court proceedings, science reports, newspapers reports, statements of account, manifestos, research findings, journal articles, etc. in different language pairs and different categories of translators (student translators, academic translators, professional translators, etc.) in multiples of three at a time.

3.2 Observations

Going through the submitted translations, the following observations were recorded:

  1. None of the versions submitted by any of the translators was perfect. There were corrections to be made on each translation.
  2. The three translations, in each instance, were not identical. Each of them differed in some ways from the other.

Now, let us try to explain further the theory of fidelity erosion by using hypothetical concentric circles.

3.3 Concentric circles showing fidelity erosion in translation



  1. Each figure above is made up of two concentric circles, that is, an external circle and  an internal circle, both of which have the same centre.
  2. The external circles in figs. 1, 2 and 3 are identical or exactly the same. In other words,     they are equal in circumference and area.
  3. The three external circles represent the same source language text to be translated. 
  4. The three internal circles in figs. 1, 2 and 3 are not equal in   circumference and area.
  5. The three internal circles in figs. 1, 2 and 3 represent the three different translations    (versions) submitted by the three different translators respectively.
  6. The area between the external circle and the internal circle, in each case, is called   the annulus.
  7. The annulus represents fidelity erosion in each of the translations.
  8. The annulus or the area between the external circle and the internal circle in each fig. represents the level of fidelity erosion  in the translation.

3.4 Quasi-mathematical Demonstration of the Theory of Fidelity Erosion in Translation

Now, let me take a step further in trying to demonstrate this theory mathematically by giving hypothetical scores to the translations as shown in the table below.

Table showing hypothetical percentage of fidelity erosion level in translation






Area of  circle

Area of Annulus

% of  Fidelity Erosion Level



outer circles 1, 2 or 3

1002 units





inner circle 1


202 units


Version 2 


inner circle 2


402 units


Version 3 


inner circle 3


502 units



In the above table, the same source language text (SLT), represented by the outer circles 1, 2 and 3, was given to three different translators, who translated it into the same target language (TL). At the end of the exercise, the three translators submitted their respective target language texts (versions) represented by the inner circles one, two and three. It is assumed that the three versions of the translation have been corrected as objectively as possible, using the same marking guide, and marks duly awarded in percentage as follows: 80%, 60% and 50% for versions 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Hypothetically, it is assumed that the three scores equal to the areas of the three internal circles, representing the three different versions respectively as shown in the table above.

3.5 Inferences/Deductions

Based on the premises as well as the analysis above, one can draw the following inferences or deductions:

  1. The annulus or the area between the external circle and the internal circle in each fig. represents the level of fidelity erosion in the translation.
  2. The external circle and the internal circle can never be equal. In other words, it is   impossible to attain 100% exactitude in translation, that is, absolute translation, especially for relatively large texts.   
  3. Hence, all translations are susceptible to improvement.
  4. There is an inverse relationship between erosion and fidelity in the translation.
  5. The wider the annulus (area between the two circles), the more the erosion of fidelity is evident in the translation.
  6. The more the erosion becomes evident in a translation the less faithful the translation  becomes.


Many agents and factors, which tend to erode fidelity in translation, have been identified. Some of them include the translator himself, his working tools and conditions, linguistic and cultural factors, etc. A few examples are shown below.

4.1 The Translator as a Fidelity Erosion Agent (FEA)

So far, Ajunwa (2014:5) has identified four categories of translators as follows: translation practitioner, translation theorist, apprentice translator and quack translator. According to him, a translation practitioner is one who is not only competent in both the SL and TL, but also has acquired the relevant translation skills through a professional training in a recognized school of translation. Besides, he is licensed by relevant competent authorities to practice translation.

A translation theorist or academic translator is a university teacher of translation studies, who carries out large-scale researches in the discipline and postulates most of the theories of translation. Presumably, he is competent in both the SL and TL.

An apprentice translator is someone who is still undergoing a professional training in translation. He is not yet very competent in either the SL or the TL or both of them.
A quack translator is a self-improvised person, who fumbles with translation. He has a shallow knowledge of either the source language or the target language or both of them. Worse still, a quack translator has little or no professional training at all in translation.

From the above presentations, one can aver, without fear of contradiction, that the quack translator constitutes the most important fidelity erosion agent (FEA) in translation. Technically, a quack translator’s level of linguistic performance in either the SL or TL or both of them, does not support his ability to “pass judgment on the grammaticality of sentences, on ambiguity, (on orthography), and paraphrases” (Bussmann 1996:86).

4.2 “Les faux amis” as Agents of Fidelity Erosion

Les faux amis is a French expression, which literally means false friends. In translation theory, the expression is used to describe words or even structures, which may appear to correspond semantically in both the source and target languages by virtue of their etymology and form, but actually do not, due to their separate evolutions in each of the languages. As the name humorously implies, they are indeed, false friends of the translator, because they are capable of confusing the translator, thereby resulting in fidelity erosion in translation. Now, consider the following cases.

Example One

Source Language (English)

Target Language (French)

I want to rest.   

Je veux rester. (wrong)

Je veux me reposer. (correct)

Example  Two

 Source Language (English)

Target Language (French)

Il est en prison actuellement.

He is actually in prison. (wrong)

 He is presently in prison. (correct)

Example Three

Source Language (English)

Target Language (French)

He asks me a question.

Il me demande une question. (wrong)

Il me pose une question. (correct)

Comments :

In example one above, although rest and rester resemble visually, they do not mean the same thing contextually; hence they are regarded as faux amis. Ordinarily, asks and demande seem to mean the same thing; but they differ contextually, hence they are also regarded as faux amis in example three above.

4.3 Language Interference

In speaking or writing a second language such as English, some Igbo native speakers exhibit the subconscious linguistic attitude of applying phonetic and phonological knowledge from their mother tongue in decoding words or phrases of a second language. For instance, a typical Igbo native speaker from Idemili and Njikoka Local Government Areas of Anambra State of Nigeria subconsciously uses the phonemes [l] and [ʀ] interchangeably. Let us consider the following examples:

Source Language (English)

 Target Language (Igbo)

  1. John is praying.
  2. John is playing.
  1. Jọn na-egwu egwu.  (John is playing.)
  2. Jọn na-ekpe ekpere. (John is praying.)


In the above examples, the Igbo translator, who is a victim of language interference, subconsciously decoded “praying” (na-ekpe ekpere) as “playing” (na-egwu egwu) and vice versa, thereby contributing to fidelity erosion in the translation.

4.3 Local Dialects as Agents of Fidelity Erosion in Translation

Writing about speech-communities, Bloomfield (1973:15) asserts that every village has its own local dialect which usually differs slightly from the dialect of its neigbours. If an Igbo writer introduces his local dialect into his writing, the translation of such a work will pose some difficulties to the translator. Here are some examples:

Source Language (Igbo)

Target Language (English)

Éè                            (Standard Igbo)

óolò                         (Owerri dialect)

Wàwà                       (Enugu dialect)

Mbà                          (Onitsha dialect)


Ije ọma                    (Standard Igbo)

Deèje!                      (Nsukka dialect)   

Gaànu!                     (Otampa dialect) 

Keemesia!               (Onitsha dialect)

Safe journey

Ọ na-eku nwa.           (Standard Igbo)

Ọ na-ere nwa.            (Nteje dialect)

Ọ  na-ehe nwa.          (Otampa dialect) 

Ọ  na-eghe nwa.         (Amaeke dialect)

She is a baby-sitter.

She sells a baby.

She flies a baby.

She fries a baby.


Presumably, someone who is only familiar with the standard form of the Igbo language will find it difficult to decode such words as óolò, deèje, etc. Also, the literal translation of the various dialects in respect of Ọ na-eku nwa (Standard Igbo ), gives somewhat embarrassing results because baby-sitting , which is the message being conveyed by the utterance, has nothing to do with baby selling/flying/frying.

4.4 Lexical Ambiguity

Wikipedia, free encylopedia explains to us that certain words present meanings depending on the contexts in which they are used. This condition poses translation problems to the translator, thereby results in fidelity erosion in translating. Below are a few examples :

(i) strike

Source Language (English)

Target Language (French)

The teachers strike the pupils with a cane.     

The teachers are on strike.

They strike oil in our village.

Les enseignants donnent des coups de bâton aux élèves.

Les enseignants sont en grèves.

On a trouve du pétrole dans notre village.


In the table above, the word strike means a different thing in each of the three contexts in which it has been used. A quack translator, who does not have mastery of the English language, runs the risk of translating mistranslating them contextually.

4.5 Structural Ambiguity

Below is a typical example of an Igbo utterance presenting structural ambiguities due to the absence of tone-marking. Such structural ambiguities can lead to considerable fidelity erosion in translations.

(i) akwa

Source Language (Igbo)

Target Language (English)

i. Ị kwara ákwà.

You made a cloth.

ii. Ị kwara ákwá.

You wept.

iii. Onye nwe  àkwá nke a?

Who has this egg?

iv. Onye nwe  àkwà nke a?

Who has this bed?

4.6 Idiomatic Expressions

In the words Robins (1976:65), an idiom refers to habitual collocations of more than one word, that tend to be used together, with a semantic function not readily deducible from the other uses of the component words apart from each other. Therefore, it is practically impossible to translate an idiom word for word without distorting the meaning. Below are some examples:

Example 1:

Source Language (French)

Target Language (English)

L’homme tourne autour du pot.

The man is going round the pot. (wrong)

The man is beating about the bush. (correct)

Example 2:

Source Language (Igbo)

Target Language (English)

Ada na-egbu oge.

  1. Ada is killing Oge.
  2. Ada is killing time.
  3. Ada is wasting time (correct).

Ada nwere anya-ukwu.

  1. Ada has bulky eyes.
  2. Ada is greedy. (correct)


One of the greatest difficulties encountered by translators is the inherent idiomatic nature of the language. For example, the Igbo language is inherently heavily idiomatic and this phenomenon presents great difficulties to non-native speakers translating texts into or from the language.


In conclusion, one can state without fear of contradiction that no translation is absolute or perfect. All translations are subject to perfection. However, to minimize the levels of fidelity erosion in translations, the translator is encouraged to consult relevant sources of information, whenever in doubt of the exact meaning or equivalent of a word or expression. Good monolingual, bilingual and/or multilingual dictionaries as well as encyclopaedia should be consulted for the purpose of accurate decoding of source language words and expressions. A translator, who is in difficulty, should not hesitate to consult linguistic experts or cultural informants in case of linguistic and cultural difficulties respectively. Equally, the translator is not expected to improve upon the quality of the source language text in terms of its content and form. Otherwise, he will alter the message and style of the original text. And this will amount to the fidelity erosion in translation.


Ajunwa, E. (2014). Translation: Theory and Practice. Awka: ENOVIC Publishing Co Ltd.

Bloomfield, Leonard. (1973).  Language, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Bassnet-McGuire, Susan. (1980).  TranslationStudies.London: Metheun.

Bussman, Hadumod. (2006). Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Trans. Gregory   P. Trauth and Kerstin Kazzazi. New York: Routledge.

Flamand, Jacques. (1983). Écrireettraduiresurlavoiedelacréation. Ottawa: Vermillon.

Hatim, Basil and Jeremy Munday (2006). Translation: An Advanced Resource Book. New York: Routledge.


Mounin, George. (1973). Les Problèmes Théoriques de la Traduction. Paris : Gallimond,  1963.

Moskowitz, D. «Le traducteur : recepteur et destinataire du message» dans Etudes de Linguistique Appliquée ... Paris : Didier, xii, Oct-Dec.

Newmark, Peter. (1998). A Textbook of Translation.  London : Phoenix.

Nida, Eugene et Charles R. Taber. (1969). The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden : E. J. Brill.   

Robin, R. H. (1976). General Linguistics, An Introductory Survey. London : Longman.

Van Hoof, H. (1989). Traduire l’anglais : théorie et pratique. Paris : Duculot.

About Dr. Enoch Ajunwa

Dr. Enoch Ajunwa Translation Journal

Dr. Enoch Ajunwa is an Associate Professor of French Language and Translation and former Head, Department of Modern European Languages, Faculty of Arts, the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State of Nigeria. He hails from Otampa in Isuikwuato Local Government Area of Abia State, Nigeria.

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