Much the same applies to the expression 'What a word has escaped you by the fence of your teeth!' This is intelligible, but unidiomatic, English for 'What nonsense!' Must we flout English usage to preserve it, if we feel, covinced, as I do, that Homer took it over, as an idiom discounted by familiar use, from a long line of bardic ancestors, much as he inherited the epithet 'fast' for ships, and has, as a result, to talk of a 'swift fast ship' when he means a real clipper?

Context - The author is emphasising the need to preserve the meaning of a sentence or idiom while translating it from Greek to English. He is partial towards achieving the same effect in the translation as desired by the author in the original text, rather than preserving the idiom and syntax of the Greek.

Please note that I have noticed some ill placed commas in the text but I have chosen to preserve the original punctuations of the book I am reading from, lest I remove a comma that was really meant to be there.

P.S. - I think that 'clipper' means a slow ship but not sure.

  • So, what are your real questions? You seem to have understood the gist of it. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:35
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    He's asking for a decision on whether a word-for-word translation is to be preferred to a paraphrase. Especially when translating idioms. Especially when a word-for-word translation gives rise to complications beyond the 'sounds outlandish' variety. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:45
  • Thanks for your comments but I am not sure if I fully understand the highlighted sentence. For instance, I am still confused about the relationship between Homer taking over the idiom from his bardic ancestors and and author's question about flouting English usage to preserve the idiom. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 21:58
  • Oh I think I got it! The author is pointing at the fact that Homer took the idiom over from his bardic ancestors and used it word-to-word. So the author is asking if we should do the same or paraphrase it to keep the effect intact. Is that it? Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:03
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    A clipper is (was) a very fast sailing ship that came into existence long after Homer (and ancient Greece) had departed the scene. I don't know what to make of the author's notion that "a real clipper" is preferable to "a swift, fast ship" in the context of Homer.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:35

1 Answer 1


OK, this author suggests, IMO, that literal, perhaps word-by-word translations, are in fact treating with contempt the idioms of the target language, in this case the English. Also, that such translations, while being perhaps more accurate, may sound dead or flat and are missing on the fun of the idioms of the target language.

Why use, he says, the flatly sounding "swift fast ship," which is a direct translation mapping the words of the original in a one-to-one correspondence, when the English has the word "clipper," which does a perfect job, and sounds more idiomatic/specific?

Why use, he says, the prolix "What a word has escaped you by the fence of your teeth!", when the English has the much more compact and juicier "What nonsense!"

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