The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

Raise your hand if you have never heard the phrase traduttore, traditore. No? Consider yourself lucky. It’s an old Italian adage that has become quaint and antiquated, or quaintiquated. In the ALTA blog Beyond Words,  wrote this in 2008:

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Put it simply, Italians were complaining about untranslatable expressions that did get translated into French. The complaint, in modern terms, was about what got lost in translation…as if human languages were precisely interchangeable.

The book Lost in Translation, by Ella Frances Sanders, captures poetically and visually some examples of untranslatable words from around the world. The Dutch word glaswen, for example, means a sarcastic or mocking “blue smile.” And it’s not only individual words but entire idiomatic expressions that find no accurate or faithful equivalent in other languages. So, out with that archaic idea of absolute faithfulness.

Nontranslator persons usually juggle two other ideas when they speak about translation: meaning and literality. A word may have a single meaning that is abundantly clear, such as dog or horse. We are talking about the quadruped pet in the first case and the quadruped running beast in the second. The moment you use either word as the core of an expression, such as I’m dog tired or Out of the horse’s mouth, the average American will unerringly notice a change in meaning completely unrelated to the first nature (pet or beast) we referred to earlier.

But even when we consider multiple-meaning words, like table, hammer, nail, cloud or net, we have to remind ourselves that only the meaning that answers to the particular context at hand should be considered. This particular meaning can then be influenced by the focused meanings of the neighboring words and paragraphs. So, take it from me: when someone talks about the meaning of a text, he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

You may be the author of an employee handbook or an advertising campaign slogan, or even the tagline for the company’s tradeshow exhibit, but you know nothing about the particular sets of meanings that can travel to another foreign language. You may be bilingual and you still won’t know. Enter the meaning-wranglers, those solitary cowboys of the wordplains called translators.

The second topic many nontranslator persons stumble on is the case of the literal translation or the word-for-word translation, as if they knew what it really means. Unless you can easily find your way around bilingual dictionaries and texts (no Google Translate allowed, that would be cheating), you are not qualified to tell a translator whether her translation is literal or not. However, in the spirit of cooperation, let me disabuse you of the false notion of what literal translation seems to mean.

A literal or word-for-word translation is actually a time-honored translation approach very much in use since ancient times. This strategy, also called a metaphrase, meant using the foreign language words that best approached the syntax and meaning of the original text. An example of metaphrasic translation: A book was found on the floor. Spanish: Un libro fue hallado en el piso.

A more “free” translation would paraphrase or say the original in different ways. Taking the former example, two Spanish paraphrases: a) Encontraron un libro en el piso. b) Había un libro en el piso.

Now, before my fellow translators accuse me of misusing the passive voice above (Un libro fue hallado en el piso), imagine if the phrase A book was found on the floor were part of a suspense novel instead of a police report. Different sets of meanings. Again, only a professional translator is qualified to make the calls on how best to recast those sets of meanings, or combinations of meanings, in a foreign language. Not a bilingual person, no matter how fluent that person is in two languages. Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living.

It is worth noting that a literal translation would recreate a document equivalent to the original with little regard to the syntax and natural fluidity of the foreign language for the translation. Because a deep knowledge of grammar and syntax structures is required to render a professional translation, there’s a certain amount of irony in the request for faithfulness presented by customers unfamiliar with the grammar intricacies of the foreign languages. A bilingual speaker may be competent in speaking a foreign language, but she is not necessarily equipped to write in that foreign language on a professional level.

I also suspect that a certain implicit word order in the foreign language is the focus of attention of the nontranslator person who demands a faithful translation. Different factors, not the smallest of all a long residence in America, away from the mother tongue spoken in Chile, República Dominicana, Perú or Bolivia, may sway a bilingual person to unknowingly write in a way that is strongly influenced by the English syntax. It follows, then, that the “correct” or idiomatic way a phrase is written in French, Spanish or Italian may read a little off, this translator-facilitated word order deemed literal by the customer because it does not jibe with what the customer’s model in her head.

It is very advantageous, then, for both you, the customer, and for me, your translator, to sit down and clarify what you mean by a translation that meets your expectations in terms of meaning. More often than not, we both should be asking ourselves: what are the expectations and needs of the one who really needs the translation? In other words, the actual user: the hospital patient, the buyer of your goods or services, the reader of your articles.

Now that’s a cool and a modern concept.

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2 Comments

Filed under Bilingualism vs. Translation, Literal translation, Translation as writing, Writing skills, Writing skills

2 responses to “The quaintiquated notion of translation fidelity

  1. mercedesguhl

    “Bilingualism often refers to the speech portion of a language, not the written part. Well, translators write for a living”… What a great statement, Mario! Thanks for putting it so clearly!

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