16 - Types of text
"I knew his book before he came to us, I had half memorized it, for it contained very many numbers"1.
When setting up the translation strategy following the translation-oriented analysis of the prototext, many factors come into play. The dominant of the prototext must be evaluated to check its validity in the receiving culture. Sometimes the dominant of a translated text doesn't coincide with the dominant of the original, and such difference is to be ascribed to the very evaluations of this kind.
The dominant doesn't depend only on the text itself, or on its systemic relation with the culture in which it was originated; it depends for the most part on its systemic relation with the culture receiving it and of which it becomes a part. But it depends also on the model reader it is to address and on the kind of text it is.
The model reader of the metatext does not always coincide with the model reader of the prototext. Sometimes, a text that in a given culture plays a given role, in another culture can play a different role and address a different kind of reader.
But also the type of text has an influence on the way in which the translation strategy is prepared. We know that originally natural language is purely oral language. Writing is a consequence of subsequent evolutions. Conventions, which differ in different cultures, assign different proprieties to oral and written language. Such differences influence the texts composed for oral use, but also the modes of writing intended to describe or reproduce oral texts.
Usually, an oral text is less considered than a written text. The Romans used to say "Verba volant, scripta manent" ("Spoken words fly away, written ones remain"). Since a written text has more probability of being preserved, more attention is devoted to its composition. Not only: a written text is also a demonstration of effort, of will; not by chance in our culture contracts have a legal value only if they are written.
In the spontaneous interaction between speakers, clearly there is not enough time to devise complex communicative strategies. And the deeper the affective relationship between the speakers, the more each speaker can afford expressing herself in a more abbreviated format and the listener will still be receptive in understanding. One uses fewer functions that serve to control the communicative intention of speakers.
Spoken language is therefore spontaneous by nature. That doesn't mean that characters who speak in an ostentatious manner do not exist. It means, at the most, that a speaker, who speaks in a style typical of the registers of written text, is not spontaneous; his stands out as marked discourse, different from the average.
What influences do these considerations have on the translation of different types of texts? This is what we shall see in the next units. In translation for film and theater, where most - sometimes the whole - of the verbal text is formed by dialogues, there is the apparent paradox that a written text has the typical functions of the oral text: the translator must deal with an oral text that, however, appears... dressed up as a written text2.
This argument holds for the translation of drama destined for performance of the translated texts, for there can be also the translation of drama for the sake of reading, in which there would be fewer concerns about the performability of the text.
This argument holds for dubbing too, to which I'll devote some space in a further unit. For subtitles, it holds true to a lesser degree. Subtitles are, in fact, a very particular case, since they are written text, however transcribe oral discourse that, in its turn, is the oral actualization of a written text (script). Not only: subtitles are not a complete transcription of the matching dialogue lines. They often are just a synthesis. As written synthetic translation of an oral, non-written, discourse, subtitles do not always reflect the spontaneity of an oral text. Sometimes, in order to bring about such a synthesis, the translator departs from the standard communication principles for oral discourse so that she can put the approximate contents of the dialogue to be reproduced in the few lines at her disposal.
All said above on cinema and theater does not hold true when there is a narrator, homodiegetic or heterodiegetic, that adds to the characters of the story in an analogous way to the inner narrator in a novel, who in written works is usually given much more space. Obviously, the inner narrator's discourse can be on a completely different register than that of the spoken language.
A literary genre that I consider borderline between written and oral discourse is the fairy tale. The fairy tale is the expression of folklore heritage. For centuries, each fairy tale was orally transmitted from generation to generation, loosing subjective features from the proto-author and enriching its general cultural heritage with each retelling. In different eras and by different means researchers took on the work of listening to the narration of popular storytellers and transcribing such oral texts. Among the most famous examples, the Grimm brothers in Germany in the Nineteenth century and Italo Calvino in Italy in the Twentieth.
Of course, transcription is itself a sort of translation. Some transcribers opted for a philological rendering; many preferred instead to adapt what they heard to the ruling principles in the written register. Transcriptions of the first type, the philological ones, have many features of the oral folk discourse in the written text: swift shifts from past tense to present tense, frequent use of indirect free discourse, use of words of a low social register and, rarely, of words of standard- high register, that in this context stand strongly out as marked text. Sometimes you find strange singular-plural concordances, in flexive languages sometimes fallen into disuse or obsolete cases, unusual turns of words.
When, on the other hand, the transcriber elaborates the folk material giving it a form more similar to that of literary registers, he operates in a way that is not dissimilar that used by a dreamer in retelling (or transcribing) the memories of a dream. While the memories are fragmentary, they have unexplained logical shifts, the transcriber, having to insert this material in the segment of the verbal discourse, adds logical connections, inserts explanations, adds annotations that show the strange nature of the described situations even from the writer's point of view.
A transcribed fairy tale is the triumph of orality in a written text, but here that also depends on the type of dominant the translator used in her translation strategy. A translator of fairy tales who eliminates these signs of oral discourse assigning them to a literary register completely foreign to them wouldn't make any sense.
In the next units I'll examine these and other types of texts in order to see each time what kinds of problems faces the translator. I'll also try to demolish the theoretical bases of the distinction between "technical translation" and "literary translation', showing that other categories are maybe more productive to distinguish the types of text not yet cited in this unit: translation for publishers, essay translation, sectional translation, translation for newspapers.
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.