Because I’m interested in philosophies of Bible translation, I pay close attention to translator’s notes for other books. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop have produced a highly recommended translation of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I think their comments on translation contain wisdom for translators of Scripture.
Our intent has been to make our translation of Tocqueville’s text as literal and consistent as we can, while still readable. By ‘readable’ we mean what can easily be read now, not what we might normally say. Of the two extremes in translating, staying as close as possible to the original and bringing it as close as possible to us, we are closer to the former. A book as great as Tocqueville’s should inspire a certain reverence in translators, not only because it is so intelligent or because its style is so perfect but also because the intelligence and the style go together and need as much as possible to be conveyed together in English. Precisely to bring Tocqueville to us requires an effort, both in translating and in reading, to get close to him, and to become familiar with his terms, his rhetorical flights, his favorite expressions.
Recognizing that translation is always imperfect, we have sought all the more to be modest, cautious, and faithful. Every translator must make many choices, but in making ours we have been guided by the principle, admittedly an ideal, that our business is to convey Tocqueville’s thought as he held it rather than to restate it in comparable terms of today. By refraining as much as possible from interpretation, we try to make it possible for readers to do their own thinking and figure out for themselves what Tocqueville means. As translators we respect the diversity of interpretation best when we do not offer one ourselves. Tocqueville wrote the following reproach to Henry Reeve, his friend and author of the first English translation of Democracy in America: ‘Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions, you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.’ We are not likely to receive such an authoritative message, but we hope very much that we do not deserve one. . . . We do provide notes meant to be helpful, identifying events and allusions no longer familiar in our day. We also specify Tocqueville’s references to other places in his own text. . . . We have kept Tocqueville’s long sentences and short paragraphs.
Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, “A Note on Translation,” in Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2000), xci-xciii.