Modern quote

I am looking for the history of the [derogatory] quote:

Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.

It is most often attributed to poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (no source given). See for example this The Japan Times article: A ‘beautiful’ translation does not preclude a ‘faithful’ result (no source).

However, there is a site, or more than one, that say that it could be attributed either to Edmond Jaloux or Tahar Ben Jelloun. This book just quotes it as a Russian proverb, and others write that it is a French adage (this source quotes Lawrence Ferlinghetti):

Une traduction, c'est comme une femme. Quand elle est belle, elle n'est pas fidèle. Quand elle est fidèle, elle n'est pas belle.

Some others, cite Milan Kundera's L'art de la fidelité (1995, Le Monde), but in that article, Kundera explains it is just a [stupid] saying that he knows. Another source says it is a Hebrew saying, another says it is a Spanish saying.

These leads provide me with six different original languages (English, Russian, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish) which makes the search for the original quote a bit difficult. Looking for the quotes and the authors given above has produced zero sources in Google Books. The oldest mention I could find is from a 1946 review of Korney Chukovsky's The Lofty Art.

Does anybody know the original source or have any more historical context on how this quote emerged?

[An answer that just provides more context on the historical evolution of this quote or some of the earliest uses would suffice.]

  • 2
    Not exactly the same, but this might be the origin: In the mid-seventeenth century, philosopher and writer Gilles Ménage criticized the translations by humanist Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt using these words: “Elles me rappelent une femme que j’ai beacoup aimé à Tours, et qui était belle mais infidèle” (“they remind me of a woman I loved very much in Tours, who was beautiful but unfaithful” ) (pauwaelder.com/les-belles-infideles) Commented Apr 10 at 17:07
  • 1
    @CarlosMartin nice find! Your quote with the concept of "belle infidèle" introduced by Ménage (see recent edit), makes it very clear that the quote was modified from that time on into its new form.
    – Moritz
    Commented Apr 10 at 17:58
  • 1
    @CarlosMartin Oh my, apparently that "woman from Tours" is apocryphal. See new edit.
    – Moritz
    Commented Apr 10 at 18:49
  • 1
    I think you can put your last edit (about Ménagé, D'Ablancourt and Huygens) in an answer, and remove it from the question. It is acceptable on H.SE to self-answer one's question if new discoveries are made after your initial research, and it will be more easy for readers to browse all these details if they are presented in the classical question-here-answer-there format.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Apr 11 at 6:43
  • 1
    @Evargalo ok, I moved the original quote part to the answer section.
    – Moritz
    Commented Apr 11 at 7:19

1 Answer 1


Self-partial answer:

Original quote

The quotes above are modern, but the precursor is older than that. I found out that in French there is the term belle infidèle (unfaithful beauty) to refer to embellished translations. According to La traduction française classique : une galerie de portraits by C. Balliu (2004), the term has its origin in the 17th century by grammarian Gilles Ménage, who was criticizing the translations made by Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt :

Lors que la version de Lucien de M. d'Ablancourt parut, bien des gens se plaignirent de ce qu'elle n'étoit pas fidèle. Pour moi je l'appelai la belle infidèle, qui étoit le nom que j'avois donné étant jeune à une de mes maîtresses.

(When Mr. d'Ablancourt's version of Lucien appeared, many people complained that it was not faithful. For my part I called her the belle infidèle which was the name I had given when young to one of my mistresses.)

(recorded in 1694). Under the same context, some sources say that Ménage also quipped:

Elles me rappelent une femme que j’ai beacoup aimé à Tours, et qui était belle mais infidèle

(they remind me of a woman I loved very much in Tours, who was beautiful but unfaithful)

(thanks to comment of @Carlos Martin). Given how close the second quote of Ménage is to the modern quote, the origin is clear.

However there is a catch! Balliu says that the second phrase about the woman of Tours is not found in any original source! For the second quote he cites a modern book from the 1960s. So the mystery is still on.

Hopefully, there is some tracking of the evolution of the term belle infidèle, for example in d'Ablancourt's Wikipedia article it says that the term was repopularized by Huygens. It turns out that it refers to poet Constantijn Huygens (the link in Wikipedia wrongly points to Constantijn's son, the scientist Christiaan Huygens). In a 1666 letter to poet Jacob Westerbaen, he writes in Latin:

Transtuli autem haec Italica κατα πόδα, qui meus est mos, quantum eius fieri potest salvâ dictionis elegantiâ. Neque enim vitio mihi verti amem, quod Ablancurtio, celeberrimo inter Gallos Taciti et aliorum veterum traductori, lepide objectum fuit ab amico, in hunc sensum: versio, inquit, tua, domine, meae perquam similis est, pulcherrima nimirum, sed infida.*

(I translated this from the Italian word for word κατα πόδα, as I usually do, as far as this can be done while retaining the elegance of the original expression. For I would not want to be brought down with the charge which a friend jokingly directed at d'Ablancourt, the celebrated French translator of Tacitus and other ancient writers, to this effect: your version, my lord, he said, is very much like the woman I love: very beautiful, for sure, but unfaithful.)

Source. Huygens clearly knew of Ménage's anecdote and the last part of Huygens' letter might have been misquoted later as Ménage's own words. Nevertheless, this last quote closes the mystery for me. It is possible that by constant retelling of the Ménage affair, the term can take the shape of the modern quote.

I leave the question open if somebody has any additional context on the evolution of the modern quote or anything that can bridge the gap between belles infidèles and the modern quote (and their supposed authors).

  • 1
    A similar French expression (although without association with translation) is Les belles sont jamais libres, et les libres rarement belles (The beauties are never free, while the free ones are rarely beautiful.) It seems a bit of a folk French wisdom, see, e.g., this cut from Les Chevaliers du Ciel
    – Roger V.
    Commented Apr 12 at 10:19

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