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13 - Translator's notes

"But despite this explanation, I felt she was withholding the book like a secret"1.

At the end of the previous unit, we saw that beyond the various alternatives listed there is yet another possibility for the rendering of wordplay. It is metatextual rendering, a translator's note for example. Theorists have difficulty in staying on a descriptive, not normative, approach on this point because many see translator's notes as a thing to be avoided, a moment of weakness, of surrender, as a laying down the translator's arms. As if the translator were personally responsible of the problems of cultural and textual translatability, and should, like a superman, be always up to the task, or above it.

In my opinion, those against translator's notes should be contrary to the author's and editors' notes as well. If these are elements disturbing the correct text fruition, they are so in any case. When an editor adds a critical set of texts so that the (untranslated) work is more understandable, I don't believe that anybody would have the nerve to consider them a surrender on her part.

The use of footnotes (or endnotes) is part of the tendency towards the explicitation of content of the translated work. And explicitation can be useful, useless or harmful, depending on the type of reader one addresses. Systematic or uncontrolled explicitation is in any case condemnable, because it ends up being applied even in the cases when the translator is unaware of doing so.

Among the researchers siding against footnotes let us read, for example, what Umberto Eco writes in his beautiful book in which he covers his own experiences as a translator and translated author:

There are losses that we could consider absolute. They are the cases when it is not possible to translate, and if such cases occur, let's suppose, in the middle of a novel, the translator falls back on the ultima ratio, introducing a footnote - and then the footnote ratifies her defeat. An example of absolute loss is provided by many wordplays2.

In this case Eco couldn't have a detached tone, being the author of the texts that are used as examples. The moment when he speaks about the notes to translations of his own texts it is not the semiotician who prevails, it is the author, whose intention (the well-known intentio auctoris that for dead or inaccessible authors is at the center of many discussions among the interpreters of their work), if expressed by the author himself, is indisputable.

But there are theorists against footnotes even if they are not directly involved with their own texts, as well. Of course, they are theorists of a generation that preceded the semiotic, descriptive approach and, particularly, Paul Newmark, who does not identify himself with any "school" of translation research, wishing to stay away from any "theory". It's no accident Newmark declares categorical rejection in his preface of the possible existence of any translation science (Newmark 1981: 7).

About footnotes, Newmark holds that it is better to prevent their use by introducing explanations directly in the text. This method determines that the translation reader is induced to believe that the information added by the translator comes from the author, because there is no graphic distinction between glosses and text. (The copyists' glosses are among the causes of the philologists' difficulties in reconstructing the original lection of a text.) It is a mystifying and manipulatory method presupposing a model reader unable to understand the difference between reading an original and reading a translation. It is a method that prevents the formation of an awareness, in the reader, of the differences of other cultures.

Among the authors that are able to maintain a detached tone on the footnote question is Dirk Delabastita, who deals with the problem together with the other publishing techniques aimed at creating secondary (meta)texts. They are

compensatory opportunities that follow from the fact that translators can establish a second level of communication, allowing themselves to reflect and comment on the result of these transfer activities. The translated text being already a metatext in its own right (i.e. vis-à-vis the [prototext], this meta-reflection of the translator can ultimately bear on the [prototext], on the [metatext], and on the transfer processes that led from the one to the other (Delabastita 1993: 218).

Delabastita therefore describes very clearly why we have two types of metatext: the one reflecting the main text of the translation act, what in the most ingenuous and primitive sense can be called "translation"; the other one, the complementary metatext, that in the case of interlingual translation has two reasons to be called metatext:

  • meta-text as meta-reflection on the text, i.e. metalingual reflection;
  • meta-text as result of a translation process concerning the prototext, therefore "text coming after".

Delabastita himself indicates the semiotic boundaries of such a communication mode. The wordplay has as an important feature its similarity to a short circuit: it has a denotative meaning on one side, on the other one being a metalingual reflection on such a meaning, which leads to the so-called "double-entendre". A double meaning produces humor simply because the two paths of meaning meet when everything induces consideration of their autonomous existence.

In the moment when a play on word cannot find a satisfactory translation in the main metatext, its rendering through the complementary metatext typically doesn't have a denotative component, since, by definition, the footnote or the comment are metalingual, metatextual interventions. Therefore there is no "short circuit" that would naturally provoke the laugh, or at least the intellectual enjoyment; only the explanation of the causes of the laugh in the original language. The pleasure, therefore, is much less direct, because in the place of the spontaneous pleasure there is an explanation of what's missing in the reader's own language.

The other boundary stressed by Delabastita is the linearity of verbal communication. Since the fruition of a text cannot occur but in a linear, sequential way (being different from a dream or a film, for example, where stimuli simultaneously play on many senses, and communication is therefore multiple), it is impossible for the reader to read the wordplay and, simultaneously, the footnote explaining it. Its substance is therefore altered.

Delabastita catalogues the type of comment that can be contained in a footnote to a play on words. The first type concerns a comment on the wordplay in the prototext. The second type concerns the comment on the metatext, in the case when the translator is afraid that her own translation is not effective enough. The third type is a comment on the prototext-metatext relation: a note that would explain the untranslatability of a given wordplay, or the way in which the wordplay was translated by another wordplay, and why.


Bibliographical references

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

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

DELABASTITA D. There's a Double Tongue. An investigation into the translation of Shakespeare's wordplay with special reference to Hamlet, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1993, ISBN 90-5183-495-0.

ECO U. Dire quasi la stessa cosa. Esperienze di traduzione, Milano, Bompiani, 2003, ISBN 88-452-5397-X.

NEWMARK P. La traduzione: problemi e metodi. Teoria e pratica di un lavoro difficile e di incompresa responsabilità, tranlated from English by Flavia Frangini, Milano Garzanti, 1988, ISBN 88-11-47229-6. Original title: Approaches to translation, Pergamon Press, 1981.

1 Canetti 1999: 73.
2 Eco 2003: 95.