Thoughts on Translation

To begin with let’s take Umberto Eco’s definition of translation as negotiation.

Negotiation is a process by virtue of which, in order to get something, each party renounces something else, and at the end everybody feels satisfied since one cannot have everything.”

Much translation is just a job. In which case, the translator will be satisfied if he/she succeeds in putting across a fact, a concept, in the target language. Translations of this sort are not exactly what you would call particularly lucrative. There are countless sites on the web telling you how much to charge, per word, per line, depending on the type of translation. Many are done simply because the information needs to be put across to others who speak a different language. For the translator, there is no real incentive to doing something creative. He might be considered more or less of a hack. Which in a sense is what Google is.

Sure, one can ask Google what the equivalent of this word or that is but one must never forget that so far Google has problems putting things into context. I suppose that’s why you may find a person’s name translated in what you would least expect: Giuseppe Della Fina has turned up as Giuseppe of the Fine One. Logically, Giuseppe should have been translated, not the last name. Google might also very well tell you that a church has three ovens, literally translating the word forno, when what was meant was apse. There is a marvelous book by Umberto Eco, even too scholarly for me at times: “Mouse or Rat?” I couldn’t help laughing when Google turned the biblical Spirito Santo into vodka, or when The works of Shakespeare became, in Italian, Gli impianti di Shakespeare, which back into English became The plants of Shakespeare. A classic is the difference between topo or mouse and ratto or rat in Italian. The delights of translation. Now would Hamlet have thrust his sword into a curtain if he had thought it was just a mouse hiding there? On the other hand he might very well have known that it was Polonius and not a mouse. One of the problems is that in translating rat into Italian you lose it’s secondary English meaning as in “I smell a rat”.  

Come to think of it, so much of Shakespeare depends on a play of words, on double meanings. In Julius Caesar, the shoemaker says he is a mender of bad soles. Obviously, here one thinks of souls as well. So how is that translated in Italian? Using the word anima for soul works well, and can also be used for shoes, as it can also be applied to the inner part, the support that gives shape to the object. Could go on as to whether the soul gives shape to our physical aspect. What do you think?

Not only does a translator also have to know something about the material aspects, but also about the culture.  Take a guidebook to the town of Orvieto where the city is described as rising on a platform of bricks with tunnels used for tanning leather. While I can imagine where the translator got these ideas, it took me a while to figure out the reference to tanning leather.  True, there are tunnels under the streets but they were not used for tanning leather. It then dawned on me that conciare, conceria refers to the tanning of leather, but the word conci means blocks of stone. When the translator said that something happened in the ninth century, he certainly didn’t have his thinking cap on straight for the Italian ottocento means nineteenth century and not ninth. And what he referred to as a “double queue mermaid” was none other than a twin-tailed mermaid known as Melusine that appears on medieval pottery.

Another example? An author of detective stories was checking up on a translation of his latest book and did a double take when he found his hero waiting on Fifth Avenue for a lemonade. A lemonade? He turned back to the original English text and what his hero was waiting for was a “limo” or limousine.

Satisfaction comes from finding the equivalent, not simply of a word but of a mood, a feeling, of negotiating yes, yet not betraying what the person who put down his thoughts originally meant. Are you simply trying to put across a fact in another language? Or are you trying to capture something more subtle? Is it technical, is it literary? Translating the History of the Italian Armed Forces does not induce one to write poetically. Accurately, yes. Equivalents. A book on the Tuscan cigar had as its title Una Passione in Fumo. Thinking and thinking some more I eventually came up with just the right equivalent in English, A Burning Passion, and it looked just right when it appeared as the title on the cover, framed in a swirl of smoke.

Just relying on a dictionary isn’t always that simple either. More recently a translator of Proust explained that she also used dictionaries of Proust’s time to make sure she didn’t interpret a word in a way that didn’t come into use till much later.

Now that I no longer translate, and leave that to those with greater linguistic skills, I can begin to see what the pitfalls of translation really are. Translating is a matter of making decisions.  Writing itself is also fraught with decisions. Just what is the right word to express a specific color, a specific moment. And will the translator understand it? Of course if the author and the translator are lucky, if they can communicate and have the questions of the one answered by the other, that makes it all the more stimulating.  Master translators like William Weaver were fortunate in being able to work with Calvino and his Invisible Cities and Umberto Eco and his Name of the Rose. How exciting that must have been, trying to figure out how to render the various dialects, some completely imaginary, how to keep the music of the language …

And if you can’t figure out what is meant, what better than to ask the author, as I did when translating Domenico Prola’a Baroque Churches in Piedmont. Now what could “unghia” or nail mean when referring to a vault?  So I tracked down the author and not only did he draw me pictures of many of his churches but he even took us on a tour of some of them, and showed me the unghia or groin in a vault.

Sometimes you may wonder if it’s worth while trying to make sense of what someone has written –true, at least it does give you a chance to really understand what the author is saying. Then when the author compliments you and says your translation is better than what he had originally written, that does make your efforts seem worthwhile and you can take pride in your craft.

I now limit my translations to some for my archaeologist son, and if I’m not sure what is meant by pileato or whether orlo rientrante should be translated as incurved rim or lip, I can always ask him. It helps to have it all in the family.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Translation

  1. Hi Erika. The beauty of your translation technique is its exquisite poetic complexity. I sincerely doubt there is anyone on earth who spent so much time and passion on every word, every phrase. In this every sense, it’s not the wand, it’s the wizard!



    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Such an interesting piece Erika. I have generally felt that the most difficult act of translation must be that of poetry – the easiest probably the labels on food products (just a job, as you say). Even the latter might be difficult at times, but poetry … that surely is the pinnacle of ‘negotiation’!


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