Research Articles and Papers

Schleiermacher on Translation

Friedrich Schleiermacher  (1768 – 1834, Germany)


Schleiermacher was a German philosopher, theologian and biblical scholar. He was deeply involved in Romantic Movement (1800 to 1850), an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe, partly as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and mainly as a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment also called as liberalism and radicalism. The intellectuals challenged ideas grounded in faith and traditions and promoted reason and individualism giving way to scientific rationalization of nature. It opposed superstition and many intellectuals put art as highest form of insight against religion. 

One of the early Schleiermacher's primary goals was to turn contemporary culture, and especially the Romantic Movement away from the then idea that had placed art above religion. 

In addition to his religious, social, political and philosophy followed by his thoughts on Aesthetics, Dialectics and Ethics, Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutics (i.e. Theory of Interpretation) and theory of Translation hold great importance in study of Translation Studies.   

“On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), translated by Susan Bernofsky 

Translation as phenomenon 

At first, Schleiermacher defines translation as a phenomenon that involves transplantation of information from one language to another. He further explains that this phenomenon also involves translation within same dialect or a language that are greatly influenced by time and distance, class, education, emotion etc. He adds, If we need to translate even our own utterances after a certain time has passed, we may not make them truly our own.

Interpretation an easy task

He chooses to focus on translation from foreign tongue to mother tongue, specific to art and science and differentiates between Interpretation and Translation. For him interpretation is oral translation: apt for business transactions. Interpreter follows rules and settings within a given specific framework that is not very challenging as compared with the task of translator. Moreover, mutually agreed upon conventions are used. Graded series of terms are used, and as long as carelessness and intent to deceive is absent, interpreter is comprehensible to anyone with knowledge of both the matter under discussion and the language. 

Translation a more difficult domain 

For him work of translator is more important as it involves challenging task of not only maintaining spirit of the text but also the spirit of the author.  It involves those works of arts and science in which the author’s free individual combinatory faculties, on the one hand, and the spirit of the language along with the entire system of views and sentiments in all their shadings represented in it, on the other, count for everything; the object no longer dominates in any way, but rather is governed by thought and feeling; indeed it often comes into existence only through being uttered and exists only in the utterance.

Business Translation a mechanical work 

However, translation of purely narrative and descriptive writings is merely interpretation and they may not be equated with translation of art and science. He further explains that there is always a considerable degree of ease for translator when he / she deals with artistic or scientific work in a TL similar to SL (same idea, same range of meaning, same range of relationship and structure of period etc.). In such cases translation is purely mechanical as business translation.

Translation of Art and Science equated with work of Art   

On the other hand, translation of art and science demands highest order of articulation especially when author’s particular work of drawing connections has determined the character of the work. Translator is required to bring his different powers and skills and be familiar with the writer as well as his tongue. The more differences in languages (dialects / tongues) in terms of time and space the more challenging the task of translator. Many times not a single word from SL perfectly matches the TL. Most knowledgeable scholars, well versed in both the languages as well as the subject matter, significantly diverge in choosing most suitable word.  This applies in poetry as well as most abstract works of noblest sciences. 

Task of a Translator

Task of translator becomes more difficult when he has to deal with authors independent though, his self-expression or a particular impression that takes his work in higher realm of art and his relationship to the language. Translator has to deal in totality the free utterances in the genius of the language as well the writer’s tongue.

Translator needs to immerse himself in both the spirit of the language and writers characteristic nature. Eg. Hellene, task becomes more difficult when dealing with foreign far distant tongue. Mastery of language with diligence, precise knowledge of the entire historical life of people, understanding in totality the individual works of the authors and be sure to bring to his country and contemporaries the same understanding of the masterworks.

Translator has to deal with author’s free individual combinatory faculties as well as the spirit of language along with entire system of views and sentiments in all their shadings represented in it. He has to count for everything, the object is no longer dominates in any way, but is governed by thought and feeling: indeed, it often comes into existence only through being uttered and exists only in this utterance. 

Problems and Methods of Translation in use  

After having explained his thoughts on the nature of translation as well as the difficult task that the translator has to perform, Schleiermacher recognizes two methods that were devised to meet intellectual needs, on one hand, and an intellectual art, on the other hand. They are Paraphrase and Imitation respectively. 

For him, Paraphrase is a method more common in translation of scientific text. It tries to overcome irrationality of language but only in a mechanical way. For example, if one does not find a way (word) in a corresponding language, an attempt is made to approximate its value by adding restrictive and modifiers. Ie, it treats the elements of two languages as mathematical signs that can be reduced to same value by addition and subtraction; neither the genius of language is being subjected to transformation nor the original tongue becomes apparent. Whenever there is difficulty in expressing connection of thoughts – interpolated sentences are used as notes and commentary. Thus, although a great mass of individual detail is required, but overall impression misses (altogether) the spirit of the speaker and the language. 

Imitation is more common to works of art. It surrenders to irrationality of the language. It is based on the principal that one cannot possibly produce in another tongue a replica of word of rhetorical art whose individual parts would perfectly correspond to the individual parts of the original. Given the difference between the languages, with so many other differences – there is no other recourse but to somehow contrive (formulate) a copy. Entire work consisting of parts differ noticeably from the parts of original, yet its effect comes so close to the original as the differences in the material permit.

Schleiermacher is very critical of Imitation and he rejects it saying, “such a copy is no longer a work itself”. It does not make a pretense to show the spirit of the language as an effective force in its rights. It rather show us the foreignness this spirit has produced. What is produced for the reader is different from the one that original provided to its original leader, therefore, its identity is sacrificed. Imitation does not make any efforts to bring writer and reader together, rather it strives to give to the reader an impression similar to one received by readers who shared a language an age with the writer. 

Paraphrase as well as Imitation, both fail in stricter sense of translation to satisfy someone who, filled with admiration for the excellence of a foreign masterpiece, wishes to enlarge the sphere of its influence to include fellow speakers of his language and has in mind a stricter notion of translation. In fact both procedures show us only boundaries of the art, not the art in its totality.    


Schleiermacher proposes two possibilities to bring writer and his reader closer – without forcing reader to leave bounds of his own native tongue behind him, to acquire as correct and complete an understanding and take as much pleasure in the writer as possible:

1.Either the translator leaves the writer in peace as much as possible moves the reader towards him: Foreignization

2.Or the translator leaves the reader in peace as much as possible and moves the writer towards him. Domestication  

He further warns that any attempt to combine, would certainly result in unreliable results and will carry a danger that writer and reader might miss each other.


In foreignization, the translator tries to compensate the reader inability to understand the original language. He seeks to impart to the reader the same impression that he himself received – through his knowledge of language as it was written. 

During this process, he advises translator not to indulge in line by line translation as it fails to achieve spirit of the language as well as spirit of the writer himself.


The translator tries to provide translation assuming how writer would have spoken with readers of another language. Schleiermacher rejects this method as this would not only move the author from the translator:  it would also be unreal to think that the author speaks the language of the reader. He further equates domestication with mongrels by saying, “this undertaking would appear to be the most extraordinary form of humiliation to which a writer of some quality can subject himself”. 


Schleiermacher does not clearly point out how to achieve foreignization, but he emphasizes on expansion of language on a massive scale through accepting foreign words and thoughts in German language and proposes a nationwide movement in for promotion of translation activities and aims at making German soil richer and more fertile through cultivation of foreign plant life. 

While he accepts that it is not easy to achieve mass level foreignization of this sort, he proposes to slowly create a culture through active participation of intellectuals with deep understanding of foreign tongue. He argues that knowledge understanding of foreign text be acknowledged as a known as desirable state, and a certain flexibility be granted to native tongue. If these two get acceptability translation of this sort will appear quite natural phenomenon that influences the entire intellectual development of a nation. 

He further argues that for a temporary period of time, translators be given certain concessions, till they fully start conveying the spirit of the language and spirit of the writer. Meanwhile, during this transition phase, a culture of accepting foreign by the readers will be inculcated. The more the readers are tuned towards foreign, the more challenging will be the task of the translator to satisfy the growing need of the reader. 

Once a considerable degree of success has been achieved through translation on mass scale, the translator of same work will be done by different translators following the same method. Translation of same work made with different point of view will be able to co-exist and it will be difficult to say that anyone of them is a whole perfect one than the others. Certain passages in one version will be better than the other passages in another one. Sum of these taken together will fulfill the task; each in its own right will always have only relative and subjective value.


Although there is an extraordinary brilliance in the observations made by Schleiermacher on mother tongue, nature of translation, task of a translator, enrichment of languages etc., he fails to refer to any actual translation that can be considered as solution to his own identified problems: How to deal with writer and reader approach (two different cultures) and how to present spirit of the language and spirit of the writer. 

One fails to understand, if translator does not deal with ambiguity or obscurity in the source text, the reader will end up losing not only the spirit of the language and as well as of the writer, but reader will lose appetite to read, understand, and assimilate another culture as well. Without generalizing this issue, if we restrict ourselves to his specified purpose that deals with creation of a national culture for foreign through this sort of restriction on translator, it becomes almost impossible to believe that all intellectuals of his country will adhere to this principals and abide by his rules to help him achieve a task that appears to be too demanding and authoritative. Therefore his solutions are utopian in nature. 

On ethical grounds, Schleiermacher equates domestication as act of begetting mongrels, an extraordinary humiliation to the writer. In this context, Lawrence Venuti supports Schleiermacher in his essay Strategies of Translation, while "domesticating strategy" (author-to-reader approach) is an "ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target–language cultural values”, "foreignizing strategy" (reader-to-author) is an "ethnodeviant pressure on those values to register linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text”. Thus, not only the translator but also the reader has to possess the same hermeneutical sensitivity. 

For the success of the reader-to-author method, firstly the presence of a desire to immerse oneself in foreign works/worlds and secondly the necessity of natural flexibility of the reader's native language can be restrictive on the reader's but liberating on the translator's part. Restrictive for the reader because he/she has to be well-trained and equipped to grasp the idea and liberating for the translator because he is presented with a chance to go beyond the conceptual framework of his own language and be inventive, in other words, visible.

While trying to demand too much from the translator to fully implement the reader- to- author method, Schleiermacher forgets to recognize identify of the translator who is the main mediator between two cultures and remains between the reader and the writer. In the words of Anthony Pym, “In historical terms, the exclusion suppresses most of the intercultural people that have produced great translators.  It gets rid of Zwischenstaaten that have long mediated-and translated – between France and Germany, and are too easily forgotten as the gristle of the European Union. It also suppresses virtually all the conceptual tools I use to think about translation”. 

On the matter of Blendlinge, Pym strongly criticizes Schleiermacher for reinforcing cultural nationalism and considers Blendlinge as substantial people, as the intercultural communities to which translators could belong. In doing, translation studies might promote mediation rather than separation. Translation history could help give such communities a substantial past; translation ethics should help develop their regime; and the training of the translators could openly contribute to their ranks. Hence importance of human Blendlinge in translation studies.


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