Logos Multilingual Portal

30 - Words and emotions

"In my mind, I formed the elements of a new ideology; Wilson had taken over the goal of saving humanity from war"1.

The phenomenon of subjective interpretation of the sense of words - hence the subjective rendering of those words in translation - is a general phenomenon and, as we saw, concerns the intrinsic nature of the signification process. The fact that a sign (the linguistic sign included) refers to an object only by passing through an interpretant, or mental sign, determines that the translator's subjective experience, the emotions that that individual has felt in relation to that word and the objects evoked by it, play a dramatic role in creating associations, both to the object and to the potential translatants.

Something very similar was intended by Franco Fornari in his theory of coinemes. Fornari wrote the theory about "units of affective signification" because, even if he didn't openly refer to Peirce, he considered fundamental the individual experience background in determining the meaning of texts (where by "text", in a semiotic way, we mean any object, verbal texts included).

If such an argument is generally valid for a semiotic approach to translation, it is interesting to notice that researchers with a more classic and traditional view, like Levitskaya and Fiterman, also devote a whole chapter to the translation of words with a strong emotional charge. An example that is used to explain the terms of the question is the following:

They were narrow, startling eyes that looked like jewels in this light

The adjective "startling" is undoubtedly a word with an emotional meaning. In different contexts it could be translated as "astounding", "amazing", "unusual", but also "alarming", as in the case of "startling news". Such translation results come mostly from the association with given words, that in some cases tends to become a permanent phenomenon. Just think for example of the adjective "black" in the following collocations:

black heart

black future

black comedy

black melancholy

black envy

black ingratitude

and of the adjective "rosy" or "rose" in the following:

rosy hopes

rosy glasses.

From such examples you understand that not only the individual history of the association of a given word is important to given affective contexts concerning the object, the external referent the word refers to; the personal experience of the individual with those words is also fundamental, as are her associative habits. In other words, those called "free associations" in Freudian theory, the ones allowing the therapist to rebuild the origins of the patient's views, the emotional connections, the repressions, in the common history of individual expression in speakers and writers manifested in the form of idiosyncrasies, preferences, peculiar use (idiolect); in the case of translators, we can speak of "translation idiolect". This shouldn't however be meant as a sort of code in virtue of which, in the translator X's opinion, the word A in a given language results always in the word A1; because it is emotional context and co-text in combination with the translator's psyche to determine a given result.

In the following example (Levitskaya and Fiterman 170) you notice the peculiar color that can take the adjective "stark" in an anomalous context:

If professional conspirators and thugs are, by any large number of French Canadians, changed into martyrs and heroes, the outlook becomes stark indeed.

In such a context the adjective "stark" does not mean "stiff", nor has an intensifying value, as in the combination "stark mad", that means approximately "completely mad". It refers rather to the name "starkness", meant as "desolation", "bleakness".

Levitskaya and Fiterman report a few examples of how the adjective "fierce" can be interpreted in a different way according to the context. In one example, this is it:

Her fierce glance became furious as she directed it from Renny's face to Ernest's.

In the following example the translatant in another language cannot but be different:

There was no answer, only the tapping on the window, once more repeated, fierce and sharp.

In the next example the sense is completely different:

Near the pump she spied a bee's nest as large [needs correction also in the Italian] as a man's hat, glimmering palely, a smooth sphere, a sleeping world of fierce activity.

In the following example, taken from Faulkner, it is possible to give "fierce" a meaning indicate by dictionaries as a typical meaning in U.S. slang:

At night passers would see the fierce dead glare of the patent lamp...

Moreover, there are cases in which the adjective "fierce" has the nearly adverbial role of intensifier, like for example "fierce black hair", "fierce red mustache", that can be easily interpreted like "very black hair", or "carrot-red mustache".

Having to draw shareable examples of an exquisitely subjective phenomenon, such cases of different translatants of the English adjective "fierce" can be considered fit enough, but of course in a collective lesson it is not possible to dwell on the tastes, preferences and personal evocations of single words. And the same happens when there is a client you work for and there follow interpretive discussions on the translatant of this or that word.

When both parties are aware that the meaning to be attributed to words depends, in part, on the ability for empathy with the author, on being able to guess what the mood of the author might be in choosing that adjective instead of another, on the capability to filter one's own past experiences and separate them from one's own translation choices, the discussion can have no end, and be useful and productive. Ultimately, owing to the unending nature of such interpretive discussions, the conclusion is usually reached on the basis of which party is in the position of greater force in the rapport.

A subtler problem is presented when the client, or the translator, is convinced that there is an inextricable relation between a word and one of the translatants. In such cases, the margin for discussion is very nearly zero. All the interpretations other than that considered the only correct one, are relentlessly conceived of as "wrong". From such clash one of the parties can only come out frustrated, because her profound knowledge of language and translation collides with a wall of ignorance, incomprehension and presumption.


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.

FORNARI FRANCO Coinema e icona. Nuova proposta per la psicoanalisi dell'arte, Milano, Il saggiatore, 1979.

LEVITSKAYA T. R., FITERMAN A. M. Problemy perevoda. Na materiale anglijskogo jazyka, Moskvà, Mezhdunarodnye otnoshenija, 1976.

1 Canetti 1999: 173.