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32 - Intertextual references

Ā«The Armenian and I exchanged a few words, but very few, and I don't know what the language was. But he waited for me before he started choppingĀ»1.

One of the factors that is most incisive on translation activity is intertextuality. The problem can be approached from at least two perspectives. The first is based upon the intertextual reference itself as a translation process, equipped with metatext (the reference itself) and a prototext (the text to which the reference is made). The second one concerns intertextuality implied in translated and texts and texts being translated and the problems connected to cultural translatability.

Starting from the first approach: intertextual reference as translation process. I prefer to begin with a concrete example. In the article Our House Wasn't Dirty Enough?2, the author describes problems she had with her children's allergies, and their doctors' recommendations about hygiene in the apartment. Even with the author's precautions, for many years her kids had asthma crises, and they overcame the problem only as they grew up. Meanwhile, new theories about allergies sustain that a little dust in the environment where allergic subjects live can curb the onset of allergies. At this point the author realizes that she has devoted years of attention to her child in a way that may have been counter-productive, and he skeptically looks forward to the next medical "discovery" that will jeopardize the "firm ideas" of the moment. And comments in this way:

But after years of watching theories come and go, I started taking them with a grain of dust.

The part we are interested in here is the finale, "with a grain of dust". Of course a translation not considering intertextuality in this last part would be an abstruse, meaningless version. To understand the strategy that guided the author, and translate in an intelligible way the intertextual reference, it must be deciphered. And deciphering of intertextual references most often starts from a strange element, a marked piece.

The metatext of this intertextual reference made by Denise Grady is therefore "with a grain of dust". The task for the reader, and the translator, is backtracking to what could have been its prototext to which an implicit reference is made. There is a real translation technique to solve such problems. Let us suppose that the translator realizes the existence of something strange in this sentence, without understanding what kind of reference could it be. One possibility is inserting in a research engine the quoted string "with a grain of dust", through which we don't get any results. The ten referred sites don't say anything interesting on the problem.

Now we must suppose that it is an imperfect reference, not a thorough quotation, and therefore we must think of what part of the string can contain an element different as compared to the prototext. Some suspect fall at once on the word "dust", because it is very relevant to the story's subject, as much as to be hardly very relevant to the prototext too. We then insert in the search engine grid the quoted string "with a grain of", and we get non longer ten, more than 1500 results. Which are revealing.

Nine texts out of ten, in effect, have the string completed in the same way, i.e. with the word "salt". One can infer then that the prototext is "with a grain of salt". We still must understand where this text is taken from and therefore what should it evoke in the text to be translated. Inserting in the search engine "with a grain of salt", the complete prototext, we easily get that it's the English version of a Latin sentence, cum grano salis, taken from Plinius's Natural history. Moreover, nearly all occurrences refer, before the searched string, the verb "to take", i.e. one should "take something with a grain of salt", and, examining the co-texts of many occurrences one discovers that this sentence means more or less to accept or to take a theory, or a concept, with some diffidence. Once you get to the Latin prototext of the English sentence, you can easily search it in Latin. On an encyclopedia I found that the meaning of "cum grano salis" is "with some common sense, discernment".

We must now understand what sense is implied in substituting salt with dust in the context of that story, i.e. what's the sense of the intertextual translation. One sense is undoubtedly making the text more witty, ironical, and to call the attention of readers who are able to dig under the text's surface hunting for intertextual references, as we did here. The humor consists in the fact that the sentence, with dust instead of salt, can be easily recognized, and becomes tailored to the subject (dust, allergies).

Now we must decide how to translate into another language such an intertextual reference (the only part of this multiple translation process that is usually considered). We must first of all be aware of the way in which the saying is known (if it is known) in the receiving culture: for example, in Italian it is known in its Latin version. Then we must try to modify it in a way as to preserve its recognizability, albeit by adding the "dust" element. One solution could be "cum grano pulveris".

From such an example we can see that what is commonly called "metatextual translation" is actually a set of translation processes, with a set of intermediate passages (in some views prototexts, metatexts in others), as in the following scheme:

Cum grano salis

(initial prototext)

With a grain of salt

(first-level metatext,

second-level prototext)


With a grain of dust

(second-level metatext,

third-level prototext)


ironical effect within the text

(third-level metatext,

fourth-level prototext)

cum grano pulveris

(fourth-level, final metatext)

If you look carefully at that scheme, you realize something odd: for the reader who is not also the translator, the interpretive process regresses, from the center of the scheme to the start. For the reader-translator, the interpretive process goes in two directions: the first is that common to the reader's, backwards towards the last (recognizable as last) prototext. The translator now must culturally mediate towards the final metatext by first translating the sense of the presence of such intertext (third level), then finding a translation strategy to render it in the receiving culture(fourth level).

Translating an intertextual reference, therefore, means translating a translation process: we get therefore to a real second-degree translation, so to speak, or translation squared. In the next unit we'll see where the other track leads, the presence of intertextuality in translated texts, with the consequent problems of implicitness and explicitness of the intertext.


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.

GRADY DENISE Our House Wasn't Dirty Enough?, in New York Times, 19 marzo 2001.

1 Canetti 1999: 15.
2 Grady 2001