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36 - Realia: transcription, transliteration and calques

«Escrito está y se repite idéntico sin compasión ni esperanza»1.

"Thus it is written and thus it is repeated, identically, without compassion or hope"2.

Vlahov and Florin, having shown in their book about realia that it is possible to categorize them based on the object type, or on place and time parameters, go on arranging the processes to transmit realia in translation3. Such classification, presented after the examples in the two previous units, in their book bears a more systematic character.

First of all, translation is distinguished from transcription of realia as a first fundamental divide. In the case of translation, it is implicit the attempt at a greater appropriation of the alien element. In the case of transcription, there is an attempt to preserve the alien element through own means.

Although such a distinction is very superficial, I think it is a first fundamental standard for distinguishing realia processing on the own versus alien axis.

Transcription is, in turn, divided into transcription proper and transliteration. By "transcription" we mean:

transmission of sounds of a foreign language (usually proper name, geographic name, scientific term) using the letters of the alphabet of the receiving culture.

Whether or not the receiving culture and the source culture use the same or differing alphabets involves further differences. If the alphabet is different, the change is all the more necessary (although there are also text insertions in different alphabets) so that the receiving culture reader is able to process the message. If the alphabet is the same, there can be cases of adaptation reproducing the pronunciation (for example, the English chewing gum can become in Italian «ciuinga», and be treated as an Italian word of feminine gender).

Transliterarion is on the other hand

transmission of letters of a foreign word using the letters of the alphabet of the receiving culture.

The emphasis of transcription is, therefore, on sound, while the emphasis of transliteration is on the graphic form. When transliteration is taken to the extreme, it is possible to anyone (even a computer) reconstruct the original form of a word, as if it were the coding/decoding of the Morse alphabet.

One could even go further, and say that the transcription approach is useful in direct interpersonal relationships, in everyday, matter-of-fact situations, while transliteration is useful in the more intellectual relationships, mediated by written formulation.

The example given by Vlahov and Florin concerns the native North-American axe (that in itself is already a transcription by the British colonists of a word in a pre-existing language without a written form): the tomahawk. The Russian transcription would be томахок, i.e. «tomahok», which is a way to make pronounceable to a Russian speaker this word in a way similar to the American pronunciation. The word entered Russian culture instead as томагавк i.e. letter by letter transliterated, in a way that in Latin characters would be «tomagavk», since, usually, the sound of aspirate h is rendered in Russian with a hard g sound, and w, non existing any better, is rendered with a simple v4.

As to realia translation, there are many possibilities, many ways of incorporating. The first actualization consists in the neologism, often amounting to a calque. By "calque" we usually mean the "translation calque": with material of the receiving language a simple or composed word is formed by literally translating the elements of the expression in the source culture. One classic example is the English skyscraper, that has many calques in different languages: the Russian neboskreb, the Italian grattacielo, the French gratte-ciel, the German Wolkenkratzer, for example.

Then there are half-calques, in which just a part of a composed expression in preserved. For example, the translation of the German Dritte Reich is in Italian Terzo Reich, in Russian tretij rejh, in English Third Reich.

There are instances of appropriation, i.e. of adaptation of foreign realia: a word in the receiving language is created that, however, fundamentally is worn over the frame - even from a phonemic point of view - of the original word. It is what happens with the pirožkě, typical Russian filled little pies, that in Estonian are called pirukas; it is what happens with the German Walküre, actualized in other languages as "valchiria" (Italian), Valkyrie (English), val´kirija (Russian) etc.; the French concierge that in Russian becomes kons´eržka, ending up being inflected any other Russian word of the feminine declination in -a. In many of these cases it is a matter of "grammatical" appropriation, in the sense that the adaptation allows the treatment of the word along the rules of grammatical government, inflection, conjugation of the receiving culture.

The semantic neologism, on the other hand, is different from the calque due to the absence of an etymological connection to the original word. It is a word, or word combination, "created" by the translator in order to permit the rendition of the meaning contents of realia. It is also called semantic calque. One example is the English snowshoes from which the Russian snegostupy derives, formed with the sneg- root, meaning "snow", and the root stup-, meaning "step" (and having the same etymology of the English word). The Italian, on the same word, has created a translation calque instead, producing "racchette da neve".

An example of semantic calque is the Italian "realizzare", on the English "to realize", where the original Italian meaning of the verb (to make real, to do) the meaning of the English verb (understand) is overlaid, in sentences like:

Non avevo mai realizzato che tu fossi così bassa.

There are also instances of fake calques, or pseudocalques, or presumed calques. For example, in American English the Italian word latte is used to mean not what in Italian is meant by latte (milk), but «espresso coffee mixed with steamed milk», i.e. «cappuccino», another element of realia that, by contrast, has passed unchanged in the English-speaking culture. In Italian there is the word "golf" that, in many Italians' view, would be an English word with the same meaning. It is a pseudocalque, because in English "golf" doesn't mean "sweater" - as it happens in Italian - but only the sport. The pseudocalque probably derives from the British expression "golf jacket". Deprived of the name "jacket", however, in English it looses part of its meaning, but is still has it in Italian, in a very similar way to what happens with "latte", "caffelatte" and "cappuccino".

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. 73.
2 Marías 2001, p. 60.
3 Vlahov, Florin 1986: 96.
4 Vlahov, Florin, 1996: 98.