Logos Multilingual Portal

14 - Fidelity - first part

«[...] me acuerdo de lo que dije hace mucho, al hablar del narrador y el autor que tienen aquí el mismo nombre»1.

"I remember what I said long ago, in speaking of the narrator and the author who have the same name here"2.

Translations must be faithful. On this requirement there is a general consensus in the scientific community and among translators. On the condition that nobody should get the idea of questioning what is meant by "fidelity", of course. Because, in such a case, one would realize that the consensus is achieved by "fidelity" meaning something vague, generically positive, vaguely corresponding to "goodness". A good translation is always faithful. And a faithful translation is always good. Tout se tient.
  The question of fidelity is covered in this course in order to free us of a category that does not have any scientific value and is unproductive and confusion-generating within translation studies. Let us start by evaluating its approximate value based on dictionary definitions. An Italian dictionary, under "fedele", writes:

2a. agg., di qcs., che rispetta la realtà dei fatti; preciso: una descrizione, un''esposizione fedele | conforme all''originale: una copia fedele di un documento; una traduzione, un ritratto fedele.3

  Guralnik in Webster''s dictionary, under "faithful", reports:

3. accurate; reliable; exact [a faithful copy]4.

As you can notice, in both cases the meaning of the word that best matches "translation" speaks about precision, accuracy, conformity. (The legal translator who must guarantee a poorly defined "conformity" of the text she produces for the court in comparison to the original is not to be envied.) Giacomo da Lentini (1250) identified "faith" as "unconditioned adhesion to a fact, an idea" and Giamboni defined it as "adhesion of soul and mind to a religious truth, revealed or supernatural" (1292), while to Paolo Giovio "fidelity" means "conformity to the original" (1550)5.
  The notion of "conformity", as Giamboni''s definition suggests, is metaphysical and subjective, because there are no two identical objects (objects meant also in the semiotic interpretation in the sign-interpretant-object triad), nor precise, scientific, measurable and repeatable criteria according to which two objects can be generally considered as "alike" or "unalike". Fidelity, as sometimes occurs also in the religious sphere, is outlined as an incalculable notion based on self-referentiality, on a reference within a given individual: "the one who believes is faithful", hence "s/he is faithful who believes to be faithful".
  Put this way, a translation''s fidelity cannot be challenged, if the translator declares she has been "faithful". It is axiomatic, it can be accepted or denied, only not discussed; as happens with the faithful as respect to the existence of God that, in the Bible, is defined "Yahveh", or "I am who I am"6. It is an invitation not to discuss, but only to accept or deny (by faith, as happens for faithful and atheists, respectively) or to suspend judgment (as in the case of agnostics).
  I believe it impossible to define "fidelity" even in a context where distinctions should be easier and more practical, as in the marriage. Where does the partner''s fidelity end: is it necessary to cultivate a recurrent, parallel relationship, or is an overt sexual engagement, or a kiss, or a caress (or, in these cases, the definition of "fidelity" depends on the body part implied), or is a mail exchange, the drafting of inspired poems, gifts, smiles, or just the fantasy of sexual promiscuity (sin of thought) enough to end it? As you can notice, proceeding from the first to the last definition of "fidelity" the group of the faithful is ever shrinking, until its virtual disappearance.
  In the part of this course devoted to adaptation we have seen that as far as translation is concerned one should decide to whom, to what the supposed fidelity pertains. Is it a fidelity to the prototext? To the source culture? To the model of reader (which one)? To the receiving culture? To one of the dominants? To the canon?
  Actually, the notion of "fidelity" also traveled through centuries in the writings of people speaking about translation without tracing a reconstructable coherent guideline.
  In the 17th century in France there was a wide diffusion of the so-called belles infidèles, the "free" translations. With an extended macho metaphor concerning the division of women in two parts: the beautiful ones (hence necessarily unfaithful) and the ugly ones (hence necessarily faithful), translations were catalogued in this way too. The "ugly ones" are considered "faithful" because they would follow the phrase and the lexical structure of the original step-by-step. The "beautiful" ones should be unfaithful because they don''t, preferring to the original structure the structure best accepted in the receiving culture to the original, and to the original''s lexicon a lexicon produced spontaneously.
  Such a view of fidelity/infidelity, and the preference for the latter, had been endorsed already in 46 Ancient Era by Cicero in the work Libellus de optimo genere oratorum. The most quoted and most meaningful sentence writes:

I translated as an orator, not as an interpreter of a text, with the same expressions of thought, with the same ways of rendering it, with a lexicon appropriate to our language''s character. In them I have tried not to render word for word, but I maintained each character and each expressive efficiency of the very words. Because I thought not more convenient to the reader to give him, coin after coin, a word after another: rather, pay him his due in the entire sum7.

From this passage it is clear that the text adaptation proposed by Cicero is closer to the sense of reading functionality than philological precision. All the more so when he states he translates "as an orator", i.e. as a person who wants himself well, and easily understood, and read, not "as an interpreter", i.e. not as a hermeneutist philologist of the original.
  The notion of "faithful translation" is here considered analogous to "word-for-word translation", but neither is this over-two-thousand-years-old view is the only way to understand "fidelity".
  In the next unit we will see how this notion evolved in the Romantic period, precisely in Wilhelm von Humboldt.


Bibliographical references

CICERO M. T. De optimo genere oratorum.

CORTELAZZO M. ZOLLI P. Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, Bologna, Zanichelli, 5 v., v. 2, D-H, 1980.

DE MAURO T. Il dizionario della lingua italiana, Milano, Paravia, 2000, ISBN 88-395-5026-7.

GURALNIK D. B. Webster''s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Cleveland (Ohio), Collins, 1979, ISBN 0-529-05324-1.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

1 Marías 2000, p. 418.
2 Marías 2001, p. 336.
3 De Mauro 2000.
4 Guralnik 1979.
5 Cortelazzo Zolli 1980, v. 2, p. 422.
6 Esodo, 3, 14.
7 Cicerone 1973, p. 33. Added emphasis.