Logos Multilingual Portal

1 - The re-expression of the original

"For people of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians [...] there were many Turks [...] and next to it was the neighborhood of the Sefardim, the Spanish Jews [...] There were Greek, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies [...] my wetnurse was Rumanian. There were also Russians here and there"1.

Already in 1963, the great Czech father of translation studies Jiří Levý in the classic book Umení překladu had made assumptions that guided research on translation towards a broader conception, in which interlingual translation was also considered from an extra-lingual - and, more generically, semiotic - point of view. One can see that from the fact that he considers a writer - the prototext's author - a translator of reality, analogous to the interlingual translator, who translates the original that is, in turn, a translation of reality. The interlingual translator would thus become a "translator squared".

Of the original's author an artistic expression of reality is demanded, of the translator an artistic re-styling [in Czech: přestylizace]. The translator expresses his talent first of all as an artist of the word, consequently, in a first place, he must be a style specialist2.

Such a statement implies that the interlingual translator interprets the prototext reality in a subjective way (as does the author with the matter that he decides to use for his own creation) and that translation is heavily influenced by the author's personal style, by his idiolect.

The practical realization of a version is based, in Levý's opinion, on three focal points:

  1. the interrelation between two linguistic systems;
  2. the influence of the original's language on the artistic texture of the metatext;
  3. the strained style of the translation, deriving from the translation of an idea into a language other than that in which it was originated;

Let us analyze these three aspects.

When Levý speaks of the reciprocal relation at work between two linguistic systems, he implic-itly refers to the two cultural systems. He does not limit himself to viewing the superficial aspect of the linguistic system as a self-referential code; he also examines its reality-related aspects, with the culture in which it was originated and developed. In fact his concern is to make clear that the relationship be-tween a text and the culture that generates it - the general culture of the environment, the individual author's culture, the culture of those cultural cur-rents to which the author is exposed - is a relation-ship impossible to recreate in any other language, in any other culture:

The language of the original and the language of the translation are not immediately commensurable. The linguistic capabilities of two languages are not "equivalent", and that is why it is not possible to trans-late in a mechanic way. The exact meanings and the aesthetic qualities of the words have no reciprocal match. For this reason, the more the role of language in the artistic structure of a text is important, the harder to translate it; of course, a feature of poetic translation is its greater license and greater strain in the texture3.

From this analysis, it is already clear that the metatext is characterized by a lesser degree of spontaneity and naturalness (and if it is spontaneous, this is a false trait, because it is an artful elaboration on a text that originated spontaneously, in a different culture, obeying different criteria and a different cohesion). Levý sets some examples of different views of everyday cultural aspects.

The way to count the floors of a building, for example. U.S. people and Russians calculate that the floor that is on the same level as the ground outside the house is the first floor, whereas in the other cultures this is considered as the ground floor, the first floor being that above. Another example of Levý's is the segmentation of the parts of the day in two cultures, the German and the English:















Moreover, there are still greater differences as regards the way to refer to brothers and sisters in four cultures examined4:






older brother







younger brother


older sister




younger sister


These differences are not always resolved by the translator's awareness and ability, because every culture has a degree of precision that is different in order to express concepts in given areas.

On the whole, one can say that the lexicons of the different languages are characterized by a different concentration of terms to signify different areas of reality and, consequently, form the position of members of two languages reality in them is articulated with a different level of precision5.

In the figure, taken from Levý's book, on the left you can read: «Lingua A» and underneath «Lingua B». On the upper side, three letters of the alphabet represent three abstract "segments" of reality. On the right, an indication of the possibility for the progression to go on freely.

The presence of little vertical traits represents the presence, in a culture, for example, of seven lexical alternatives in the A culture compared to two in the B culture (semantic segment a), of twelve lexical alternatives in the A culture compared to five in the B culture (semantic segment b), of two lexical alternatives in the A culture compared to ten in the B culture (semantic segment c).

Consequently, even a very good translation is always a result of a compromise. The syntactical and lexical potentialities of any language impose given limitations to the translator's work in the writing stage. In order to cope with the above analyzed situation, a translator must mobilize all means she has at her disposal. Wherever the origi-nal's author uses the expressive means that are most become to him, that arise spontaneously from him and indissolubly from the matter about which he is expressing his thought, the translator must turn to expressive modes that can even be alien to her, that often are confined to the extremes of the local origi-nal literary production. For this reason, one can say that the translator goes beyond the limits of the ex-perience of the original literature.

As regards the second point, the influence of the original on the metatext can be of direct or indi-rect character, The negative direct influence mani-fests itself in clumsy constructions, borrowings and in the lack, in translation, of the expressive means not present in the metatext's language.

The indirect influence of the original's language is, on the other hand, measured in the frequency with which the translator deviates from the prototext's stylistic traits that she considers neutral, directly deriving from its grammatical structure. Substantially, an expert translator, in order to avoid calques and forms deriving from the different grammatical structure, systematically deviates from them, so that in the end her translations contain many grammatical traits that are typical of the prototext inferior to the quantity in the texts spontaneously created in the receiving culture.

If, for example, one is translating from Rus-sian, and the translator is (maybe much too) aware that there is a huge series of adverbs that are formed with a negativizing prefix, like for example nedalekò, "not far from", she tends to never trans-lating nedalekò as "not far from...", to always translating it as "close" or "near", whereas, the form is actually possible in the receiving language - more similar to that of the Russian adverb - "not far from".

Translated literature for all these motives tends to emerge as a system on its own, within which elements have shared features, as Gideon Toury had guessed.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

LEVÝ JIŘÍ, Umení překladu, Praha, Ceskoslovenský spisovatel, 1963. Russian translation by Vladìmir Rossel´s, Iskusstvo perevoda, Moskvà, Progress, 1974.

1 Canetti 1999: 6.
2 Levý 1963 (1974): 77.
3 Levý 1963 (1974): 77.
4 Levý 1963 (1974): 80.
5 Levý 1963 (1974): 81.