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33 - What does "realia" mean?

«[...] uno siente regret o rimpianto, no hay palabra española exacta para eso, quizá seamos poco dados en estas tierras a lamentar lo ocurrido o lo no ocurrido, lo que hicimos o dejamos de hacer»1.

"[...] you feel what is called 'regret' in English, or 'rimpianto', in Italian; there's no Spanish word that says it exactly, maybe we're not much given in these lands to lamenting what has or hasn't happened, what we did or failed to do"2.

Having to face the question of practical application of translation shift categorization, we need material to work with and, for a part of such shifts, maybe the most apt material is that taken from everyday life, where the way of living of a people, the prosaic details of social life dictate the spontaneous origin of expressive forms that then, transposed into literature, can be very hard to translate.

Some of these spontaneous expressive forms enter the vocabulary and eventually characterize the cultural, if not linguistic, way a people express themselves. Single fragments of populations carry on specific cultural traditions, that use special words to indicate them.

To enter this field it is necessary to understand what "realia" means in the first place, both within translation studies, and without; in this we will be helped by two Bulgarian researchers, Sergej Vlahov e Sider Florin, who in 1980 published a whole book covering what is normally called "untranslatable", realia included.

The word "realia" has its origins in Latin, not the language spoken by Romans, that used by Middle Age scholars in many European countries as a language of science, research, philosophy. Since in Latin the plural neuter nominative of an adjective transforms it into a name, "realia" means "the real things", as opposed to words, that are considered neither "things" nor "real". For this reason, the word is a plural of "realis" (real), that, however, is not found in most Latin dictionaries because they usually contain the Classical, not Medieval, Latin occurrences.

In this meaning, the word signifies the objects of the material culture.

Entering in the field of translation studies, a radical terminological change must be enforced: "realia", in fact, does not mean objects, but signs, words and, more precisely, those words signifying objects of the material culture, especially pertaining to a local culture. It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish realia-objects (mostly outside translation studies) and realia-words (mostly inside translation studies).

In every language, there are words that, without in any way distinguishing themselves in the original from the verbal co-text, nonetheless they are not easily transmissible into another language through the usual means and demand from the translator a peculiar attitude: some of these pass to the text of the translation in unaltered form (they are transcribed), others may only partially preserve in translation their morphological or phonetic structure, still others must sometimes be substituted for lexical units of a completely different value or even "composed". Among these words, we meet denominations of element of everyday life, of history, of culture etc. of a given people, country, place that do not exist in other peoples, countries and places. Exactly these words have received in translation studies the name of "realia". (1969: 432)

In order to further complicate the terminological framework that is already very confused, researchers of the East European area, among the first to use this term in translation studies, do notconsider it to be a plural neuter, but a feminine singular. In particular, in Russian there is the word реалия (realija) that is a singular feminine. Consequently, it is, first, possible to speak about "realia" using the singular (in order to mean one of these words), which we cannot afford, short of using the word realium which, however, as singular, looses its value as a nominalization of the adjective. Moreover, when the word is used in the plural, it looses the -a ending, following the feminine declination, and becoming реалии (realii).

Linguistic differences notwithstanding, we need to be careful not to confuse the field of realia with the field of terms. Let's get Vlahov and Florin's opinion on the subject:

Between realia and terms there is a fundamental difference. Terms are the basis of scientific lexicon; their scope is specialized, scientific literature; in other spheres, above all in artistic literature, they are used with a definite stylistic aim. Realia are not met mainly in artistic literature, as it is well known they represent elements of the local and historical color; we find them in some descriptive sciences also, but they are now used, above all, as denominations of described objects or even as pure terms. (1969: 433)

Vlahov and Florin's research is precious, we will return to it many times again. For the time being, what I wish to stress is the definition the two Bulgarian scholars give to "realia" within the framework of interest of this course:

words (and composed expressions) of the popular language representing denominations of objects, concepts, typical phenomena of a given geographic place, of material life or of social-historical peculiarities of some people, nation, country, tribe, that for this reason carry a national, local or historical color; these words do not have exact matches in other languages (1969: 438).

In the next units we will examine concrete instances of realia to see what are their possible actualizations and how they can be systematized.


Bibliographical references

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.

VLAHOV S., FLORIN S., Neperovodimoe v perevode. Realii, in Masterstvo perevoda, n. 6, 1969, Moskvà, Sovetskij pisatel´, 1970, p. 432-456.

VLAHOV S., FLORIN S., Neperovodimoe v perevode, Moskvà, Vysshaja shkola, 1986.

1 Marías 2000, p. 71.
2 Marías 2001, p. 58-59.