15 - JAkobsón and translation - part 3
ON THE NET - english
An important aspect of translation problems has to do with the effect of the existence/nonexistence
of grammatical categories on translation and its possible outcome. At first view, "to walk in the
park is pleasant" and "a walk in the park is pleasant" are very similar utterances; someone could
even say "equivalent" expressions. JAkobsón holds that this aspect, the change in grammatical
category - for example the use of a name instead of a verb or an adjective - has many
consequences. In two essays, "Poetry of grammar and grammar of poetry" 1
and "Grammatical parallelism and its Russian facet" 2,
JAkobsón emphasizes the structural importance of the grammatical categories in the text,
especially in the literary text. Using a verb instead of a name is not the same; it has
consequences in the expressive sphere.
In the quoted essay on translation, the problems deriving from translations between languages with different grammatical categories are properly stressed.
|It is more difficult to remain faithful to the original when we translate into a language provided with a certain grammatical category from a language lacking such a category 3.|
A frequent problem for the translator from English is the use of the simple past. Sometimes, from the co-text, it is impossible to understand whether a perfective or imperfective value should be attributed to the verb, if the action is finished and definite or, on the contrary, is repeated and unfinished; it is therefore difficult to decide what tenses to use in the target language.
Another tricky situation is caused by the fact that, for someone writing in English, it is not necessary even to decide if a simple past verb should be interpreted as a perfective or imperfective action. The possibility of the English language to express a "not well defined past" is an expressive tool that other language don't have, because it allows English authors not to define - to leave ambiguous - what the grammatical category doesn't imply.
|"Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they can convey. Each verb of a given language imperatively raises a set of specific yes-or-no questions, as for instance: is the narrated event conceived with or without reference to its completion? is the narrated event presented as prior to the speech event or not? Naturally the attention of native speakers and listeners will be constantly focused on such items as are compulsory in their verbal code" 4.|
When a text is translated into a language in which such ambiguity is not guaranteed by the grammatical categories, the translator is forced to make an interpretation that the author had not made, is forced to make a choice and to prefer a vision that suppresses the potential for other perspectives.
JAkobsón proposes very interesting examples. The point is to translate into Russian the sentence "I hired a worker". The Russian translator must make two decisions the English speaker has not foreseen; first, deciding whether the verb "hired" has a perfective or imperfective aspect, which, as a consequence, produces a choice between "nanjal" and "nanimal"; the second concerns the gender of the worker, which produces a choice between "rabotnika" and "rabotnicu".
On the other hand, from the Russian text, we will not be able to understand whether it is "a worker" or "the worker", i.e. whether it is an indefinite person or a person we have already heard of. In this case, the determinative article takes on an anaphoric value. This ambiguity of the Russian text is due to the absence of the article as grammatical category in the Russian language.
What we said about the use of grammatical categories is mostly referring to a less than rational use of language. When language is employed in a rational way, the grammatical model is far less important, because what we experience is closely linked to a continuous interpretive and decoding action - a translation work.
It is therefore inconceivable that rational data could be untranslatable, because in this case we would imply that we are not able to understand the rational experience itself. What can be untranslatable is experience "in jest, in dreams, in magic, briefly, in what one would call everyday verbal mythology, and in poetry above all" 5, where grammatical categories have an enormous semantic significance. JAkobsón's essay in the end quotes the Italian epigram in rhyme:
In the history of translation studies, the quantity of trivial observations on the subject is so vast, that once again we are astonished to observe how JAkobsón can make on this basis deep, original reflections that have many important scientific consequences.
First, the question of translating this epigram into English is considered: If we were to translate it "the translator is a betrayer", we would deprive it of all its paronomastic value. (Paronomasia consists in juxtaposing two words with a similar sound, or of one word being the anagram of the other.) We could be tempted, therefore, to take on a more rational point of view and to make the aphorism explicit, to answer the questions:
betrayer of what values?7
With JAkobsón's levity and elegance, the reader is thus invited to understand the characteristics of the following parts of this course, whose aim is to do away with many translations studies clichés. Betrayer of what values? And, consequently, what do we mean by "fidelity"? No translator, we think (and no lover) would be openly proud of his "infidelity". To state that translations should be "faithful to the original" has the same value of the sentence "We should behave well. We should not behave naughtily". The soldiers of the French captain J. de Chabannes - monsieur de La Palice, who died during the battle of Pavia (1525) - who remembered him with verses like "Fifteen minutes before his death / he was still alive", if compared to some translation "scientists", are just beginners. Obviously, we must be faithful, but this is indefinite - JAkobsón tells us between the lines - if we do not state what we have to be faithful to.
Translator of what messages? This question encourages us to investigate the complex nature of translation, its multifaceted nature and, consequently, the relative nature of the question. We have to define exactly from the beginning the terms of our discourse if we want to do serious scientific work. In this course, we will draw often on Peeter Torop's works. He is chief of the Department of Semiotics of the Tartu University, in Estonia, and scientific and academic heir of the great scientist JUrij Lotman. Torop's conception of "total translation" will help us greatly in trying to answer JAkobsón's questions.
JAKOBSÓN R. Language in Literature, a c. di Krystyna Pomorska e Stephen Rudy, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Belknap Press, 1987.
1 Poèzija grammatiki i grammatika poèzii, 1960.
2 Grammatical Parallelism and Its Russian Facet, 1966.
3 Jakobsón 1987, p. 432.
4 Jakobsón 1987, p. 433.
5 Jakobsón 1987, p. 433.
6 Jakobsón 1987, p. 435.
7 Jakobsón 1987, p. 435.