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3 - Direct and indirect influences of the protolanguage

"All events of those first few years were in Ladino or Bulgarian. It wasn’t until much later that most of them were rendered into German within me"1.

As in the two previous units, we continue to follow the precious contribution of Levý regarding the recreation of the metatext. The influence of the prototext on the metatext is always perceivable in the translator’s style. Such an influence can be direct or indirect. The direct influence can be in positive (i.e. presence of added elements) or in negative (i.e. missing elements that were present in the prototext); the positive influence consists in the presence in the metatext of clumsy (from the point of view of metaculture) constructs, borrowed from the prototext; the negative one consists in the absence in the metatext of expressive means lacking in the prototext language.

influence of the prototext on the metatext


in positive

in negative


in negative

clumsy constructs

missing expressive means


missing constructs typical of the prototext language

One can perceive the indirect influence of the language of the prototext by registering the frequency with which the translator diverges from the typical style constructs of the original, that the translator interprets as neutral grammatical traits. I have covered this aspect in unit one.

Beyond these problems deriving directly from the anisomorphism of natural codes, there are others deriving from the fact that thought – originally actualized in the language of the prototext – is somehow inextricable from the language in which it was actualized. Whorf too argues in favor of this point, although in another context, when he states:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated2.

Being born and raised within a linguistic culture ultimately creates a different world view in different individuals, which in a sense contradicts the very possibility of translation, unless translation is considered an extension of a new and different world view:

facts are different for speakers whose linguistic background imposes a different formulation of facts3.

After all, a good translator behaves exactly this way: gives a metacultural version of the world view expressed by the prototext as to the protoculture. But stating so creates serious risks of arbitrarily extending the translator’s interpretive and re-creative capabilities. What is the limit to the creative translator’s re-interpretation of the prototext, or on the other extreme when the translator’s personality overrides the culture expressed by the text?

It is on this backdrop that Levý refers to the multiple decisions that, non only in theory but in practice as well, the translator must make4. The translator

must restore in the speech its potential for expansion, discover the path of linguistic productivity. In an era of predominance of linguistic stereotypes it is not an useless operation.

While the original work is born in the national tongue and is completed with language itself, in translation linguistic creativity is an exceptional event, it does not enter as an inextricable element in the creative process, but is called in only by accidental linguistic situations5.

In other words, at first sight the translation process does not substantially involve a linguistic creativity, it is mainly a technical ability based on a text which is already a result of linguistic creativity. Such view of translation is contrasted by Levý, because, as the Czech scholar states, it is the harbinger of style leveling and, consequently, of content leveling as well.

In this sense Levý does not hold high opinion of the automatic mechanisms that the expert translator uses almost without realizing it. Speaking in terms of Peirce’s triad of instinct, experience and habit, we can say that Levý warns against habit, it consisting of a set of stereotyped solutions, of translational clichés that ultimately transform the typical elements of a (proto) text into typical elements of a (meta) repertoire. As Toury states,

in translation, source-text textemes tend to be converted into target-language (or target-culture) repertoremes6.

In order to overcome the great differences existing between the expressive systems of the two languages, translators have ready-made clichés, constructs that bear the imprint of the effort of their elaboration. In Levý’s opinion it is possible to perceive at first sight that a text was translated from the great number of constructs that, however correct on the grammatical and stylistic planes, are a little bit affectatious.

Stereotyped decisions – result of a non-creative approach to art – are typical in an analogous form also of another art that has to do with recreation: play-acting7.

Such a parallel between "reproductive" arts, as Levý calls them, recalls a similar parallel described by Luigi Pirandello in the essay "Illustratori, attori e traduttori", of 1908. As the title of the essay itself suggests, Pirandello had sensed the extraordinary similarities existing between the processes that I would call "translational", and Pirandello himself did not hesitate to call "translations":

Illustrators, actors and translators, considering them carefully, find themselves in the same situation when under aesthetic critical judgment. All three are confronted with a work of art that has been already expressed, i.e. already conceived and executed by others; one has to translate it into another art; the second, into material action; the third into another language. How will these translations be possible?8


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.

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

PIRANDELLO L., Illustratori, attori e traduttori (1908), in Saggi, edited by Manlio Lo Vecchio Musti, Milano, Mondadori, 1939, p. 227-246.

TOURY G., Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 1995, ISBN 90-272-1606-1.

WHORF B. L., Language, Thought, and Reality. Selected Writings, edited by John B. Carroll, preface by Stuart Chase, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956.

1 Canetti 1999: 12.
2 Whorf 1956: 214.
3 Whorf 1956: 235.
4 Levý 1963: 84.
5 Levý 1963: 84.
6 Toury 1995: 268.
7 Levý 1963: 84.
8 Pirandello 1908: 238.