Logos Multilingual Portal

31 - The motives behind the prototext

"Little by little you will manage to understand
something more about the origins of the translator's

The motives behind the writing of a text are a very useful element to consider when the text is analyzed with the aim of its possible interlingual translation. That is not to say, however, that the reasons inducing the author to create the text coincide with those triggering the promoter of a translation to have it translated. There can be the case, for example, of a poem inspired by love for a man or a woman that gets translated because, independent of its initial function, it is now interesting as a work of art. On the other hand, it is evident that the instructions for a bicycle helmet are written and translated exactly for the same reasons: try to prevent cyclists' brain damages.
  The text's function is another fundamental element characterizing translation-oriented analysis; it throws light on the possible translation strategies to be adopted. In this case, too, it is indispensable to distinguish the function of the original in its own culture and the possible functions of the translated text in the culture receiving it.
  Some functions may be rare occurrences in their field, but others are recurrent to the point that they make up real categories of texts2. The possibilities for the classification of the type of a text are manifold. Without going into detail to the point of distinguishing "newspaper columns" from "travelers guidelines on public transport" and "auction bids" and "museum catalogues", it is possible to outline some broad fundamental categories within which to categorize the minor niches.
  One possible distinction concerns "informative" and "expressive" texts. Informative texts are purely descriptive and are based on objects welldefined in the outer world. By "expressive" we mean a text that, independent from its informative potential, is characterized by an emphasis toward formal qualities (just think for example at Hjelmslev's dichotomy between content plane and expression plane) and expression modes.
  A very similar distinction is that between closed or denotative texts and open or connotative texts. An (informative) text is closed to a greater degree when the interpretive possibilities are limited, while it is open (expressive) whenever it is characterized by polysemy, ambiguity, and potentially interminable semiosis.
  Nord speaks of literary text as well, defined in culture-specific terms as a text that, far from describing reality, has the purpose of motivating personal views of reality by describing a fictional alternative world3. It goes without saying that, in the absence of objective, universal criteria to distinguish a literary text from a non literary text, it is necessary to refer to a given culture, within which coexist authors and readers willing to agree that some works are "literary" or "non literary". Given such culture-specificity of the notion of the literary quality of a text, it is not at all safe that the "literary" role played by a text in the culture that generated it coincides with the role it plays in the metaculture, or receiving culture.
  There can be, for example, instances in which a literary text in the proto-culture becomes informative in the metaculture because, we can suppose, in the latter culture there is no aesthetic background allowing the appreciation of the work's literariness; however the work, owing to its informative contents unessential to the source culture, becomes interesting exactly for that reason in the target culture.
  But the notion of "translation" is culture-specific too. So all that we say about translation, when we are not referring to the norms as impositions but as simple generalizations of recurrent events, must be taken as if accompanied by the premise "in our culture", which therefore, as all factual elements taken for granted in a single culture, we consider always implicit. Since, as Nord holds, in our culture the two aims of a textual interlingual translation are the metatext functionality and the preservation of the prototext's author intents, the translator must weigh each time if any prototext functions are compatible with the target culture, and activates them and arranges them in a hierarchical order by importance.
  The kind of translation that most nearly satisfies the need to preserve the prototext author's intentions is defined by Nord "documentary", and is that requiring the most careful and deep translation-oriented analysis. The kind of translation that, on the other hand, tries to ensure the functionality of its use in the target culture is called "instrumental". It is important to deal here with both approaches and the metatext subtypes they create because the considerations regarding the kind of metatext that is being created have a retroductive influence on the translation-oriented analysis as well.
  In documentary translation the metatext reader is always conscious of dealing with a communication process that unravels before him, i.e. he is conscious of having to do with a text translated to give him the possibility of reading it.
  Nord indicates four types of documentary translations, differentiating based on the focalization on different aspects of the prototext: word-for-word translation, literary, philological, exoticizing translations. In the word-for-word translation, the main focalization is on the morphological, lexical, and syntactical structure of the prototext, which is reproduced in the metatext without any acknowledgment of its textual coherence. Effectively, word-for-word translations have a very low readability, above all when the two languages have sentence structures that are very different. The other subtypes of documentary translation are less extreme, but tend to achieve functionality nonetheless, and acceptability of the text by the reader. Exoticizing translation has this denomination because it tends to preserve cultural words (realia) and other features of the source culture, producing an exotic effect on the target text reader.
  Instrumental translation, on the other hand, tends to obscure the fact it is a translation, because the metatext reader is confronted with an autonomous text with a definite function in the target culture, with no declared link to a source text, of the existence of which the metatext reader may have no knowledge. The form, philology, and historical memory of the text are sacrificed in order to improve communicability and operational functionality of the text in the target culture. Within this type, Nord outlines three subtypes: in the first, the prototext function is preserved as it stands; as is the case for grammatical usage instructions and business correspondence. In the second subtype, the source function is altered to fit the text to the target culture; that is the case, for example, of Gulliver's Travels, written originally as a political pamphlet and translated in many countries as children literature. In the third subtype the similarity of the effect produced by the text in the culture is pursued: that is homological translation., Nord offers the translation of poetry as an example.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, London, Random House, 1998, ISBN 0-749-39923-6.

NORD C. Text Analysis in Translation. Theory, Methodology, and Didactic Application of a Model for Translation-Oriented Text Analysis, translated from the German by C. Nord e P. Sparrow, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1991, ISBN 90-5183-311-3.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 158-159.
2 Nord 1991, p. 70.
3 Nord 1991, p. 71.