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34 - Quotations and intertextuality

"Nuni, the youngest, kept up with us, even though these quotations couldn't mean anything to her yet, while Hans and I reveled in the game┬╗1.

As we saw in the previous unit, the degree of explicitness of a quotation can vary very widely. All that has important consequences on the practical work of the translator.

Implicit quotations.

Our first problem concerns "invisible" quotations, those without graphic delimiters defining them as quotations, distinguishing them from the co-text and moving the reader (even more so the translator) to wonder where they come from, who wrote them, what's their function there. When graphic delimiters are missing from translations, a quotation is implicit, and only the translator's alertness can allow her to grasp it. Some of the alarms set off in the translator in such cases are:

  • use of an unusual vocabulary as compared to the co-text;
  • use of an unusual construction as compared to the co-text;
  • sudden appearance of references to elements missing in the co-text that are mostly taken for granted (difference in the cultural implicit);
  • use of grammatical customs different from the rest of the text;
  • use of a more formal, or less formal, style as compared to the co-text;

In essence, any element can be considered marked as compared to the co-text for any reason should bristle the translator's antennae as to the possible presence of some implicit quotation. If the translator doesn't locate it, she translates it and probably tends to make it uniform to the textual qualities of the co-text, making it nearly or completely unrecognizable.


Once a hidden quotation is located, what must the translator do? As usual, there are no rules, only possible alternatives. One strategy is the more didactic, and tends to inform the reader about what is happening with a footnote. The text of the translation contains the translation of the quotation without graphic delimiters as in the original, and a footnote informs the reader that it is an implicit quotation taken from a given text that has probably the aim to indicate a given interpretation to the reader. Such a strategy is used in particular when the translator thinks that the fame of the quotation in the source culture is greater than in the receiving culture.

Another strategy ignores the reader's problems and, once the translation of the implicit quotation is inserted, the translator does not inform the metatext's reader in any way: only the most alert of readers can grasp the quotation and locate it. Such a strategy is used in particular when the translator thinks that the fame of the quotation in the source culture is very similar to the one in the receiving culture, and, therefore, the readers of the metatext don't need particular aids to identify it.

A third strategy consists in breaching the norm 2384 on translations and modifying the translated text without telling the reader. The quotation is reported, but in the metatext the translator inserts as a gloss one or more of the following elements:

  • graphic delimiters (for example quotes) to let the reader understand beginning and end of the quotation;
  • introductory remarks as "as John Williams said in his work Book of Wisdom, ..." ┬╗
  • bibliographic notes in which it is specified from which book or edition the quotation is taken, without specifying that it is a translator's note, pretending it is an author's note.

Should quotations be translated?

The answer is: not always. In some cases a quotation, because the author wants it, is reported in the original language of the quotation (different from the one in which the author writes). In such cases the translator had better maintain it in that language.

Another possible translation problem for quotations concerns the deformation of the text due to translation. If, for example, a quotation is made because it deals with a given subject using given terms, and in translation such terms disappear or are no longer recognizable, it is necessary to report the quotation in the original (where the terms are present). The translator, in such cases, evaluates each case individually, and in agreement with the customer decides if the quotations should be complemented with a translator's note containing the text of the translate quotation.

How to translate quotations

Another problem concerns the way in which quotation should be translated. We must distinguish many different cases.

  • The quotation is in the original, is not translated
    • the original quotation is in the language of the source culture: in this case, if it is a classic work, or a work already translated in the receiving culture, the translator should look for the translated quotation and quote in a footnote the references to the edition in the receiving culture;
    • the original quotation is not in the language of the source culture: in this case the quotation is in a language different from the reader's own in original edition, therefore, the translator can preserve it in the same language in the metatext as well; an exception to this is the case when the language of the source culture and the language of the quotation are very similar, while the language of the receiving culture is very different. Let us suppose for example that in an Italian text appears a quotation in Castilian Spanish; The whole text is translated into English. While to an Italian Castilian is a readable and nearly comprehensible language, for the English reader it is not the same: in such a case it can be advisable to report the quotation in English;
  • The quotation is presented in a translated text: in such a case, the quotation should not be translated from the translation in which the quotation is reported, but from the original language. The translator should first seek the original text of the quotation, then decide if it should be translated (for example, the original could be in the same language of the receiving culture), and then translate it or, if it is a work that was already translated, look for the passage in the edition for the receiving culture.

Quotations with original text

Any time a quotation - often due to reasons of terminological precision - has a value only if it is made in the original language, the translator should prepare a "service" translation in a footnote. The term "service translation" is used whenever the text is translated not on the basis of an official edition, but the translation is made by the translator herself, and it has no pretences to be a substitute to the official edition, but only to help the metatext's reader to autonomously decipher the original. Service quotations are often poorly readable because they use as a dominant the direct correspondence between single elements of the prototext and single elements of the metatext, therefore sometimes they can't be considered full-title "texts", but only complementary apparati, metatexts that can accompany the prototext.

Quotations and metatext

As we saw in the previous unit, there are many degrees of explicitness of a quotation, above all if you also consider as variables the more or less known source in the receiving culture, and the more or less decodable function in the receiving culture. It is up to the translator to decide when and how the passage from the quotation in a culture to the quotation in another culture suggests the use of a metatextual apparatus (usually a footnote) to give the receiving culture's reader the same possibilities for comprehension as the prototext's. Of course, the more difficult the decoding of a quotation indicated in the right column of the table in the previous unit, the greater the need for a metatext to accompany the translation of a quotation so as to reduce the translation loss.


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.

1 Canetti 1999: 122.