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35 - Translation as cultural mediation

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  In unit 17, while covering intertextual translation, we have already seen the Lotmanian concept of "semiosphere", that implies the definition of the concept of "limit" or "border". The first limit that human beings have to cope with during the early months of their lives is that between their inner sphere and the exterior world.

  The infant does not perceive specific limits. At first, he may consider his mother's breast - an object he often comes into contact with - to be far more "his own" than the tip of his foot, which he will perhaps discover later on, during an expedition aimed at exploring what, for the time being, is generically the outer world, the outer reality.

  Also the infant recognizes features that are his own and features that belong to others: this is proved by the fact that, for example, the image of his mother's face (and the same goes for other figures that play a similar role, like the father, the baby sitter etc.) or the sound of her voice can calm the infant.

  When the infant is about seven or eight months old, he usually develops the so-called "stranger anxiety": he has learnt how to recognize the familiar figures (his own) and to trust them, and he is now learning to be wary of any that are new or strange (others').

  Moreover, in unit 5, we observed how the perception of the meaning of a word is weighed through our individual experience, how the semantic spectrum of a word cannot be exactly identical for two speakers, since it is partially built on the basis of individual experience.

  Communication, at any rate, is a possible activity, even though a "total communication" in inexistent and any communicative act, as we have seen, produces a loss.

  The translator must take upon herself, not only linguistic mediation, but also the task of cultural mediation - an activity that everybody carries out, more or less consciously. Within each natural language we can express anything in various ways, which can often depend on the familiar, local, regional, or national culture: the semiosphere, adopting Lotman's term, is made up of cells and sub-cells: the smallest one being the individual; the largest one, the universe. In between, we find sets containing more individuals, which may share some communicative modalities, such as the family:

Nella mia casa paterna, quand'ero ragazzina, a tavola, se io o i miei fratelli rovesciavamo il bicchiere sulla tovaglia, o lasciavamo cadere un coltello, la voce di mio padre tuonava: «Non fate malagrazie!»
Se inzuppavamo il pane nella salsa, gridava: «Non leccate i piatti! Non fate sbrodeghezzi! non fate potacci!»
Sbrodeghezzi e potacci erano, per mio padre, anche i quadri moderni, che non poteva soffrire.
Diceva: «Voialtri non sapete stare a tavola! Non siete gente da portare nei loghi!»1.

We think that the incipit of Lessico Famigliare by Natalia Ginzburg is a good example of how, within the framework of the Italian language, every family can create its own culture, as opposed to the culture of the rest of Italian society. "Malagrazie", "sbrodeghezzi", "potacci", and "loghi" are words that cannot be found on any Italian dictionary. Natalia Ginzburg proposed herself as a cultural mediator between her own family of origin and the standard language, and intralingually translated for the reader some lexical peculiarities which, otherwise, in most cases are lost with the people who made them up and made use of them, often unconsciously.

  Cultural mediation, which is part of translation, is, therefore, an activity that we all carry out in our daily lives.

[...] any form of dialogue or constructive communication is based, at its origins, on the sharing of emotions as are the first definitions a child builds to "make sense" of the world. The capillary action that the act of mediation plays on our culture must necessarily pass through an education toward empathy 2.

Not only do we carry out cultural mediation every day, but we also know how to diversify this activity according to the kind of relationship existing among individuals from the affective point of view:

If two persons are linked by friendship or, anyway, if there is any underlying communicative intention between them, words are understood in a thoroughly different way from those exchanged between enemies or persons who are indifferent one to another 3.

  The translator is a special mediator who, unlike the mediator in psychology, must concentrate on the cultural rather than on the affective bonds:

[...] anyone who has the honor and the difficulty to be a person must be, after all, a "mediator". He has the right and a duty to care about other's difficulties, to intervene between antagonists, to create links where links are no longer or where they have grown weak4.

After what we have said, it is apparent that - even before dealing with the linguistic difference between prototext and receiving culture - the translator must know who is the addressee of his mediation work, his Model Reader. This may alter considerably the formulation of his translation strategy.

  Here is an example concerning intralinguistic translation. Every Monday, Francesco Alberoni writes an article for the front page of Corriere della Sera, one of the most widely distributed Italian newspapers, bestowing pieces of advice. Who is his Model Reader? Let us look at what he says in one of his articles:

  What should we do when the situation in which we live is unbearable? [...] disappointments push us to close within ourselves [...] We refuse to learn or to study. [...] Geniuses avoid being caught up in such nonsense and concentrate only on the thing that counts5.

He seems to be addressing someone who is frustrated, lazy, and not very cultured. His article - far longer than the passage we have quoted here - says nothing but obvious things. It could be summarized in a few words: "If you are stressed due to the strong competition that characterizes our society, concentrate your efforts on innovation".

  Had he written this sentence, he would not have taken his Model Reader into account; however, in a nutshell, that is the exact meaning of his article. Alberoni was good at translating, at mediating between the straightforwardness of the message and the need for reassurance a clerk, on the subway, on Monday morning feels before entering his office where a not very pleasant routine awaits him.

  The reader who is swept away by the strategy of the author of this article, after feeling involved (but not offended) by certain allusions to frustration - that is to say, after realizing that Alberoni is sympathetic towards him - at the end of the article receives another encouragement: you can consider yourself a genius if you manage to concentrate on an objective without distracting your attention.

  It is understood that a translator working on texts in two different languages has the author of the original, with his own considerations about his own Model Reader behind her; however, the Model Reader of the prototext does not always coincide with that of the metatext. This is due both to the cultural differences between the two societies (for example, in the receiving culture the middle class, which the Model Reader may belong to, may be less developed), and to the differences concerning the publishing policy, in which the translator rarely has a strong say.

  We will expand on these topics, which we have only mentioned here, in the third part of this course, dedicated to production.

Bibliographical references

CASTELLI S. La mediazione. Teorie e tecniche. Milano, Cortina, 1996. ISBN 88-7078-391-X.

GINZBURG N. Lessico famigliare. Torino, Einaudi, 1972 [1963].

TREVARTHEN C. Sharing makes sense: intersubjectivity and the making of an infant's meaning. In Language Topics. Essays in Honour of Michael Halliday, ed by R. Steele et al, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 1987.

1 Ginzburg 1972, p. 9.
2 Castelli 1996, p. 63.
3 Castelli 1996, p. 63.
4 Castelli 1996, p. 89.
5 Corriere della sera, 18 settembre 2000.