Logos Multilingual Portal

28 - Essay translation

"After all, I had no book to check myself in; she stubbornly and mercilessly refused to let me have it, though knowing what friendship I felt for books and how much easier it would all have been for me with a book"1.

Essay translation is seldom a category on its own isolated from the subtypes of translated texts. This is also because of the old distinction between "literary translation" and "technical translation", under which names one presumed to exhaust the whole spectrum of the possible types of text. A short preamble is, therefore, necessary to define the terms of the discourse.

We have seen so far translation for cinema (dubbing and subtitling), for theater, specialized translation, of technical texts, translation for publishers, literary (fiction) translation, poetic translation and journalistic translation, defining for each the scope of application. First, I must repeat that not all these categories are mutually exclusive. For example, translation for publishers and essay translation have a vast shared set.

Essay translation concerns texts that are neither fiction nor poetry, hence is comprised within the limits of non fiction. Differently from a scientific or field-specific text, however, in an essay text sometimes the aesthetic component is very important. The subject can be philosophical, political, literary, scientific or contemporary society (differing from fiction, therefore, in that the subject is always connected to an organized field of knowledge). But the argument, unlike that of the scientific article, is sometimes made without punctual and forced references to the relative bibliography. While in a scientific article all statements must result from other quoted scientific articles or empirical experiments made by the writing researcher, the elegance of treatment allows to fly higher, to take the references that are considered well-known for granted. The intertextual reference in an essay can therefore be implicit, and the essay is less fixed on updating the international scientific community on the latest research developments in a given field than on making reflections of more general character more for orienting the background methodology than detailing the single experiment.

Thanks to this general meditative character, typical of a philosophical essay (one could say that the essay is an extension of the "philosophical essay" genre to other fields of knowledge: philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of politics, philosophy of literature), the essay is usually more elegant and literarily more eloquent than a scientific article. Moreover, unlike a scientific article, characterized by strong denotativity, or referentiality, an essay contains many connotative and intertextual references. And all that also has very important consequences on the plane of its translation.

Let's take the example of an essay from the field of translation studies, maybe the most prestigious essay in this field, the classic After Babel by George Steiner. Here is a sentence almost randomly chosen in the book:

Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop. An exercise in 'total' reading is also potentially unending. (Steiner 1998: 8)

In 38 words Steiner involves many disciplines and many authors and much knowledge indispensable to the translator in managing the interlingual rendition. Here is an example:

  • Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein's thought must be known, and in particular his essay on psychoanalysis, Conversations on Freud, in which the philosopher criticizes the termination of the therapy, entrusted to the unique and partially intuitive judgment of the therapist, since the process could hypothetically continue forever;
  • psychoanalysis: knowledge of Freud and psychoanalysis, and in particular of the complex question of terminable or interminable analysis; the epistemological debate arises from the conflict, initiated by Wittgenstein himself, between physics, the science of all sciences, and the then newly formed discipline of psychoanalysis;
  • association: the translation of this word, in function of an implicit reference to Freud's theory of "free association", implies the recognition of that reference and consequently taking it into account;
  • significant: when dealing with a text on translation, the word "significant" rings a series (or at least it should) of alarms. One regards Saussure's theory on the significant and its meaning (signifiant and signifié): can "significant" be the translation of one of these terms? The answer that the translator must give herself is no, because the two terms in English are "signifier" and "signified". Another alarm sounds regarding the significance, intended as the explanation of the meaning: can "significant" be, in this case, the adjective deriving from "significance", meant as Charles Morris intends in Signification and Significance? Or is it a simple adjective (not a technical term) that means something like "meaningful"? The translator, only after having excluded a direct tie to Morris's terminology, can come to the conclusion that the correct translation is the simple, non-terminological adjective "significant".
  • 'total' reading: comprehension - and translation - of this formula, in which Steiner presents 'total' in single quotes, as if to indicate a connotative, personal, metaphorical use, presupposes at least an acquaintance with Catford's theory of "total translation", if not Torop's theory of the same name. Furthermore it implies that the translator is aware of the connotative allusion of "reading" in the semiotic sense, that is, not the reading of a written verbal text but the interpretation of that which the patient says in psychoanalysis. In this double metaphor, the "text" that the patient constructs session after session is assimilated like a written text, a single text, and the psychoanalyst is compared to a reader-interpreter.
  • unending: this adjective, too, presupposes that the translator understands the intertextual reference to the debate between terminable and non-terminable analysis and that she uses in the metatext, the word that, in the receiving culture, constitutes an intertextual reference to that debate; for example, in Italian the adjective "interminabile" and not, "infinito".

From this example we can see how a simple six-line excerpt from an essay can call into play a series of wisdom from different disciplines, differing also from the declared area of interest of the volume itself. This is typical of essay translation, as it is also typical that the writing style is not a dry relation of experimental data, but rather, it has a meaningful style that makes it often possible to retrace the original author without knowing who he is. In the translation of essays the terminological difficulties of field-specific translation (if only on a middle level of technicality) mount with the addition of the difficulties of literary translation.


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.

STEINER GEORGE After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd edition, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 (1975), ISBN 0-19-288093-4.

1 Canetti 1999: 75.