Tag Archives: italian

Translate meanings, not words

I’m not a fan of Translation Theory. Translation is a very practical activity: it involves making judgements about the meanings and connotations of a text and deciding on the best way to convey these into another language. A good solution for one problem in one situation may well be a terrible solution when applied to an apparently similar problem in a different situation. At best, Translation Theory helps translators identify starting positions from which to solve problems; at worst, it provides them with highfalutin justifications for bad solutions.

Personally, I’d swap all the Translation Theory in the world for a few good maxims. And if I was only allowed one maxim (my Desert Island maxim, so to speak) it would be this:

“translate meanings, not words.”

It would be great if we could train translators just by shouting this at new members of the profession, repeatedly and at ever higher volumes, like a British tourist on the Costa del Sol. Unfortunately, life is never that easy.

So the first thing we need to do is to add some clarification. The key word in this maxim is ‘meanings’ and by meanings here, I refer not just to the referential meanings but also to all the other connotations of language: style, register, literary effect and the like.

Even so, this maxim is hard to apply. Most novice translators default into literal translation. When you point out that they have ‘translated the words, not the meanings’ they often stare at you blankly. And when you suggest that some passages of their translation are awkward, unclear or even nonsensical, they are wont to reply along the lines of ‘but that’s what it says in the original.’

So I’d add some practical advice to this maxim:

“Read your translation as you produce it. Reread it once it’s complete. Read it again once you think it’s perfect. If the style is awkward, change it. If the meaning is unclear, clarify it. If you find yourself writing nonsense, either you’ve badly misunderstood the source text or expressed yourself poorly. And if the reader needs to understand the source language to decode your translation, you haven’t done your job.”

Any decent professional translator will recognise all of this as something that they do instinctively, so much so that it feels like common sense. How else could one translate? Well, if you want to see what happens when somebody translates without applying this approach, try reading Ann Goldstein’s translation of Elena Ferrante latest column for the Guardian.

It’s quite short (just 400 words – one or two hour’s work for a translator) but manages to pack in a series of errors, including at least one which is catastrophic.

The subject of the article is laughter and how this provides temporary relief from the constraints of our lives. Ferrante introduces her topic with a childhood anecdote.

“I remember a design that was very amusing to me as a girl. You have to imagine the sign that prohibits honking: a trumpet in a circle, crossed out by a diagonal strip. Next to it is a convertible, and a slow-moving pedestrian who keeps the car from proceeding. The driver is leaning out over the windshield and playing the violin in the pedestrian’s ear. I laughed, and my girlfriends said: ‘Why do you find it so funny?’ ”

I read this a few times and really couldn’t make out what was going on. What was this ‘design’ that so amused the young Ferrante? It sounded like a road sign. Did 1950s Italy specialise in humorous road signs? It seemed unlikely. And then I remembered that the word disegno in Italian doesn’t usually mean ‘design’ at all, but is more typically a drawing and, by extension, a cartoon. The next two paragraphs are devoted to further discussion of the ‘design’ but unless the reader has realised that Ferrante is actually referring to a cartoon, they don’t make much sense.

Now, it’s true that any translator can unthinkingly reproduce misleading cognates in their target language. Not for nothing are these words called false friends. A decent translator, though, quickly develops the habit of questioning such cognates and will often instinctively avoid them. Fortunately, when really treacherous ones slip through, they’re easy enough to spot. One review of Goldstein’s version above should have alerted even the most lackadaisical reader to the glaring error.

If you manage to struggle through the first four paragraphs of the article (and I’ll come back to a couple of other issues in a moment), you will then meet the following sentence:

“Laughter for me can do only this: stretch what is tense to the point where it is unendurable. Otherwise it seems to me overrated.”

At first sight, this sounds reasonable enough. Until you stop and think. Is Ferrante really saying that this (stretching what is tense…) is the only thing laughter can do? That’s what Goldstein’s version says, but laughter can, undoubtedly, do lots of other things as well. Either Ferrante doesn’t know about laughter’s other qualities, or what Goldstein was trying to say was:

“Only laughter can do this…”

(Laughter can do other things as well, but there are no other phenomena capable of stretching what is tense.)

That makes much more sense, and is confirmed by the next sentence:

“Otherwise it seems to me overrated.”

If, as Goldstein has it, there is only one thing laughter can do, then the ‘otherwise’ is somewhere between superfluous and just wrong. If, as I assume Ferrante had it, laughter has at least one unique quality, then the ‘otherwise’ makes perfect sense: despite this quality, laughter is not all it is cracked up to be.

Again, reading the translation for meaning would have picked up this problem immediately, and even an inattentive translator should have been alerted by the glaring non-sequitur that was a side effect of the initial error.

There are, in my opinion, at least two more clear errors in this text. In the penultimate paragraph, Ferrante/Goldstein writes:

“Ridicule, yes, annoys the powerful, but it doesn’t bury them. Yet for the moment we’re laughing, we feel their grip on our life relax a little.”

In context, we understand that ‘for the moment’ means ‘right now’. But it’s odd. ‘For the moment’ in English usually means, ‘at this time (and until something changes)’. For example, “I’m quite happy in my job for the moment (implication: but I might look for a new one next year).” Here, there’s a minor slip in meaning but context forces the reader to correct it almost without realising.

And in the final paragraph, Goldstein has:

“That must be why the laughter that interests me most, in the context of a story, is incongruous laughter, the laughter that explodes in situations where laughing is inconceivable, in fact seems an enormity.”

Here, the meaning is clear enough, but the grammar is all wrong. The simplest fix is to replace the comma after the second instance of ‘laughter’ with a semi-colon. Again, most readers will do this on the fly, reading the erroneous comma as if it were a semi-colon or a full stop, probably without even realising they are doing so. That’s fine – but there’s another way of looking at this, which is that a shoddy translation is forcing the reader to do work that the translator really should have done for them.

The problems with Goldstein’s translation, though, don’t stop at these errors of meaning and grammar. There is also something forced about the structure of many of the sentences. Let’s go back to that first error:

“I remember a design that was very amusing to me as a girl.”

Even if we correct ‘design’ to ‘cartoon’, we are left with a rather tortured structure: “…that was very amusing to me as a girl”. We know what this means but, as it stands, it’s not quite English. More natural ways of saying this might be that the young Ferrante found it funny, it made her laugh or even just that she loved it.

And once you start to notice this kind of thing, you will see that the text is peppered with these odd ‘English but not quite English’ constructions:

“…a pedestrian who keeps the car from proceeding”

“…I get on well with anyone who can come up with this type of idea”

“laughter for me can do only this”

“ridicule, yes, annoys the powerful”

Let’s call these constructions ‘Italianate’. What, you might ask, is wrong with that? After all, Ferrante is an Italian writer. The problem is that these structures are quite normal in Italian (the linguistic term is ‘unmarked’) but they are strange in English (‘marked’). There’s nothing wrong, per se, with strange or marked constructions. Indeed, without them original writing would be impossible. But there is a problem when the translator takes ‘unmarked’ constructions from the source language and routinely translates them with ‘marked’ ones in the target language. The effect is to make the original text seem stranger than it really is, and to render it unnecessarily difficult to read and to understand. It’s what we call ‘translationese’.

If you think I’m being too harsh or indulging in cherry-picking, I’d reiterate that all of this occurs in a 400-word translation that would normally take a translator between one and two hours to produce. Or, to set it in a professional context, if I was doing quality control for a client and they asked for my opinion on this text, my verdict would be that the translation, as provided, is not fit for purpose, and that they should remove the translator from their database of suppliers.

I would also suggest they pass the following feedback on to the translator:

“Read your translation as you produce it. Reread it once it’s complete. Read it again once you think it’s perfect. If the style is awkward, change it. If the meaning is unclear, clarify it. If you find yourself writing nonsense, either you’ve badly misunderstood the source text or expressed yourself poorly. If the reader needs to understand the source language to decode your translation, you haven’t done your job.”

Prima Pagina

I’m finding that a daily podcast is a great way of improving my Italian and keeping abreast of Italian current affairs. Rai3 produces the excellent Prima Pagina, in which a guest journalist summarises the main stories in the day’s newspapers. Over the last 12 months I have followed the demise (but for how long?) of Silvio Berlusconi, the rise (but for how long?) of Matteo Renzi, and the ongoing trials and tribulations of the Italian economy, the Italian political system, and the Italian legal system.

Most frequently heard phrase: “In un paese normale…” [“In a normal country…”].

Word of the year: “rottamatore” [Literally, “scrapper” – Renzi’s nickname, for his promises to bring radical change to Italy’s ageing system.]