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34 - Loss, Redundancy, Translatability

In the preceding units, we dwelled on one of the fundamental problems in translation studies: translatability. It is fundamental because it regards the recurring question of the translatability of poetry, for example, and the other old saw of faithful/unfaithful translations.

  We would like to assure ourselves of having expressed clearly that neither of these questions can be answered in absolute terms.

  Discussion on the statement "poetry is translatable" does nothing to contribute to the scientific debate nor does its contrary, nor "translations should be faithful", or even, "translations should be free". We will discuss in greater detail some common clichés like these in the third part of our course. Since the theme of this first part of the course is fundamental concepts, we will limit ourselves to just indicating some possible perceptions of the word "translatability", keeping in mind that, in this respect, there is nothing absolute in any sense.

  If one opts for an absolute position, the risk is to drift off into mysticism, as Walter Benjamin did. In his opinion

the original sin [...] is also "the original sin of the linguistic spirit". [...] "Each superior language is a translation of the inferior, until the deployment, in the ultimate clarity, of the word of God, which is the unifying force of this linguistic movement". In other words, any linguistic condition below Paradise, depending on the distance that separates it from Paradise, that it has from Truth, is intent on redemption, it seeks translation as well 1.

From a practical point of view, it is much more useful to try, as Torop did, to classify the different aspects of translatability. This gives the possibility to concretely intervene and understand before we begin what, in a given situation, is translatable; then it will be possible to decide how we can convey to the metatext reader what could not be provided at the first instance.

  Translatability problems are often originated by cultural differences. In cultures where there is snow six months of the year, there are many verbs to express "to snow" and many nouns to express "snow", depending on the quality of the snow: icy, wet, friable, etc. Translating into a language/culture where snow is seldom seen, a word-for-word translation is necessarily impossible. In countries like Italy or France, there are qualities and varieties of cheese and wine that, elsewhere, could be simply unimaginable, and so can be untranslatable. However, if the translator chooses to render "Château d'Yquem" as "white wine" or "gorgonzola" as "cheese", she produces a huge and unforgivable gastronomic loss.

  There is the opposite case as well: translation from a culture in which there are fewer categories in a given context (grammatical, cultural, etc.) into a culture with more categories. In this case, the result of literal translation is redundant, has a surplus of meaning, a situation so common that we hardly notice the phenomenon any more. An excellent example is the presence/absence of the article as a grammatical category, as we have shown in the unit 32, with the Russian word roza.

  Another example is the expression "New York City" in non-English languages. In languages like Italian, where cities are preceded by an article while states are not, it is a redundant expression. "Vado a New York City" has the same meaning as "Vado a New York". In English, it is necessary to specify "city" in order to distinguish it from the state. In Italian, this is redundant because, if one means the state, one must say "Vado nel New York". Washington D.C. would propose a similar problem. In Italian, as in other languages, the "D.C." is redundant because one who wishes to indicate the state would use the appropriate article: "Vado a Washington" or "Vado nel Washington"

  Continuing with toponyms, the title of Wim Wenders' film Paris, Texas was not translated when the film was distributed in Europe, otherwise Europeans would not have understood that the title is about an American city called "Paris", rather than the French capital. Americans tend to express the names of non-US towns this way, too, writing, for example, "Strasburg, France", "Tallinn, Estonia", or "Helsinki, Finland". When one who translates from English uses this kind of expression, it sounds very strange in the receiving culture. For a European citizen it is obvious that Tallinn is in Estonia, and the expression is redundant. It would sound equally strange to a US citizen if a text read "The White House, Washington D.C.".

  Unfortunately, translation is not a matter so simple that it is possible to learn only some general rules, and that is not our intent in this case, anyway either. Nevertheless, we would like to point out some extreme examples of translation loss and redundancy. Here is a puzzling sentence from an Armenian fairy tale.

A Bedouin went to the hag. During tavaf, his dastar was stolen 2.

This translator complied absolutely with the principle of transliteration of cultural words. We agree that it would not make any sense to standardize all realia, in this way

A man went to the temple. During the service, his hat was stolen.

nor to nationalize them, to appropriate them:

Bill went to the McDonald's. While he gulped his cheeseburger, his Stetson was stolen.

That sounds neither very Armenian, nor very fairy-tale-like. However, it is necessary for the text to be understandable, and the quoted translation of the Armenian fairy tale is not.

  An on-going and complex argument translated into practical terms suggests the distinction into different types of texts and different types of receivers. I remember a student, during the discussion of his translation dissertation, explain the term "chipper" to the committee, which was not translated, but simply echoed in other languages, for example "cippatore", creating neologisms known only in a restricted technical area. Any philologist would have protested but, being an object of practical use, any other word would have hampered communication.

  Undoubtedly, a reader must allow for a certain amount of effort in understanding a text that comes from a different culture. Some of the most famous translations penetrated cultures with locutions that, at first initially caused dismay and confusion. Shultz's "Great Pumpkin" was at first received with disquiet by non-English-speaking readers. Now Linus' name is closely related to the "Grande Cocomero", or "La Grande Citrouille" or "De Grote Pompoen", or "HaDla'at HaGdolah" in their respective versions of the Peanuts streap.

  The translator must know very well, not only the language, but also, more importantly, the culture of the prototext. It is necessary to distinguish realia from common words, and keep in mind that, what in the prototext may pass absolutely unobserved, in the metatext can have a strong exotic connotation. It is crucial, as we have often said, to analyze the dominants of the text to be translated. The translator must focus on the translatability of the dominants of a given text for a given audience. Subdominants, to be placed hierarchically in order of importance within the given context, can even be translated without/outside the text, in the critical apparatus or metatext: footnotes, endnotes, chronology, notes on the author, reviews, encyclopedic items, maps, glossaries, and so on.

Bibliographical references

APEL F. Sprachbewegung: eine historisch-poetologische Untersuchung zum Problem des Übersetzen, Heidelberg, Winter, 1982, ISBN 3533031071. Italian edition: Il movimento del linguaggio. Una ricerca sul problema del tradurre. Edited by Emilio Mattioli and Riccarda Novello. Milano, Marcos y Marcos, 1997. ISBN 88-7168-188-6.

HACHATURJAN N. Realija i perevodimost´. (O russkih izdanijah skazok O. Tumanjana). In Masterstvo perevoda, n. 9, Moskvà, Sovetskij pisatel´, 1973, p. 42-61.

1 Apel 1997, p. 193.
2 Hacaturjan 1973, p. 47-48.