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14 - Imitation

"[...] not so much influenced by Schiller as determined in every detail, but in such a way that everything was ludicrous, dripping with ethics and nobility, garrulous and shallow, as though having passed through six pairs of hands, each less gifted than the earlier pair [...]"1.

In the previous unit, I spoke about metatextual rendering and, in particular, translator’s notes. I introduce here another form of prototext-metatext relation, passing under the name of "imitation". This category is not used much in modern science, but is still frequent in talk of about translations, meaning, "excessively free translation" or "excessively free rendering in order to be possible to speak of translation".

[...] imitation of an author is the most advantageous way for a translator to show himself, but the great-est wrong which can be done to the memory and reputation of the dead2.

John Dryden, in 1680, is forthright in judging imitation that he considers one of the two equally despicable opposite extremes in the attitude that one can have toward translation. Dryden’s classification consists in dividing the translation process into three forms:

  1. metaphrase, word-for-word, interlinear translation;
  2. it is the type found especially in the editions with parallel text, in which the translated page may not contain a real text, but simply an aid to the reading of the original. The translator here focuses her work not on the creation of a metatext, but rather on the translation of the single words so that the reader can trace back, without referring to a dictionary, to the original word. The term comes from the Greek "metaphrázō", i.e. «I express within", "I explain toward", and is now a seldom used word.

  3. paraphrase, i.e. translation in which the translator has the author in mind; not his words, however, but his sense;
  4. that implies the translator grasps the sense (apparently unique, without any possible ambiguous significations), and, without any possibility for error, decide the best way to re-express it in the reader’s language; this term also comes from the Greek "paraphrázō", i.e. "I express near". At school, paraphrase is taught, meant as a sort of intralingual translation.

  5. imitation,

where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases3.

Underlying the utopian view of imitation meant in this way, one glimpses the myth of a translation that shouldn’t appear translated, a translated text that would present itself as an original. The imitator must give the reader the illusion of reading in the original, and all cultural references must be modified to prevent the reader from feeling altogether out of place.

Utopian because the dream behind such approach is writing as if the author would have written if he had lived in the same chronotope as the translator. If Pindar had lived in England in Cowley’s time (this is Dryden’s example), how would he have written his odes? The answer that I might give is that maybe he wouldn’t have written any odes, but rather a novel instead. But then what should the translator do: write a novel based on the odes? And also as regards contents, this reasoning can take a wide tangent. If the content of a standard ode was ethic and civil, should the translator introduce an ethic - civil content to her metatext comparable (in a systemic sense) to that in the original, making the necessary changes? Let us see what Dryden says:

I take imitation of an author, in their sense, to be an endeavour of a later poet to write like one who has written before him, on the same subject; that is, not to translate his words, or to be confined to his sense, but only to set him as a pattern, and to write, as he supposes that author would have done, had he lived in our age, and in our country (Dryden 1680; 19).

Dryden substantially disclaims such an extremism, as he does its opposite, metaphrase or "verbal translation" (meaning "word-for-word"), and favors a middle road.

As rightly states Douglas Robinson, it is a paradox that the root of "imitate", etymologically meaning "mimic", "slavishly copy", in translation studies ends up meaning something totally different, the exact opposite: "doing something totally different from the original author, wandering too far and too freely from the words and the sense of the SL text" (Robinson 1998: 111). In figurative art, one distinguishes imitation from the original, from the authentic work of art. In the case of translation, the imitation being considered almost a synonym of "free translation" recalls another myth of the old school: the one according to which a ‘faithful’ translation coincides with the original, while ‘free’ translation is "just an imitation".

Leaving aside etymologic absurdities, to conclude, I must say that this category of imitation is very unproductive in the scientific field. As I showed in the third part of this course for the notions of fidelity, literality and equivalence, the concept of imitation risks being a burdensome carryover from the normative approach.

The normative theory of translation was not uninteresting only because it dictated adherence to disputable rules; it was also of little interest because it was not very descriptive. Making use of categories so elastic and poorly defined as those just mentioned, it was always possible to throw the unwelcome versions in the ‘negative’ heap (imitation, unfaithfulness, freedom, lack of equivalence) and those welcomed in the ‘positive’ one (faithful, literal, equivalent, exact), preventing such judgments from explaining the characteristics of one or other version in detail.

The normative burden prevented, when it was dominant in this field, authentic scientific progress. As Robinson says,

The normative assumption that translation is either faithful or free (and that if it’s faithful it translates either individual words or individual sentences) has blinded us to the full range of even individual translators’ actual methodological repertoires, let alone the collective repertoire of all translators taken en masse. So deep does the ban on free translation run that it is difficult even to begin to think about it in positive, appreciative ways, and that much more difficult to trace its astonishing diversity (Robinson 1998: 89:90).


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.

DRYDEN J. Preface to Ovid’s Epistles, Translated by Several Hands, 1680, p. 68-72.

ROBINSON D. Free translation, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by M. Baker, London, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-09380-5, p. 87-90.

ROBINSON D. Imitation, in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by M. Baker, London, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-09380-5, p. 111-112.

1 Canetti 1999: 207.
2 Dryden: 20.
3 Dryden (1680: 17).