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4 - Recreation and stereotype

"I cannot say exactly how this happened. I don't know at what point in time, on what occasion, this or that translated itself"1.

Like the actor, Levý argues, the translator has her own clichés, as well as her own stereotypes, whose existence does not depend on the translation process in itself, but, rather, on the exaggerated inflexibility of the translator. Such lack of elasticity, in Levý's opinion, must be attributed to the minor talent characterizing, in his opinion, the average translator as compared to the average author:

Usually less talented than the author of the original, he is more receptive toward the clichés popular in the original literature: he uses, let us suppose, standard devices to archaize a text (for example, in English, the -eth suffix), to create a caricature he uses always the same dialect, and so on2.

Such a reflection may easily provoke outraged reactions by translators, who feel demoted to "grade B writers". Actually, it is not at all certain that such a distinction is always grounded. The considerations to be made are numerous, not the least the economic ones. Writing is not always and not everywhere more lucrative than translating, often the opposite is true. Therefore, it is conceivable that some writers (either effective or potential authors of books) translate to make ends meet, and this very fact would falsify Levý's axiom.

Setting controversy aside, Levý's reasoning is still interesting in my opinion, and possibly should be stated in a less categorical way. Levý, anyway, holds that the ageing of translations - quicker, according to most researchers, than the ageing of original works, compelling the retranslation of classic works - is due to the fact that a translator, in her youth, during education, learns to write in a given way, and then, not being as creative an artist as a writer, goes on using the same techniques, the same devices, using the same forced language for decades and decades, old already before being born.

Such a phenomenon would be most noticeable in the translation of poetry. In the translation of poetry we often notice

remnants of survived poetic style, devalued by the "poetic-ness" of the translation. The focusing on "poetic diction", particularly in the case of the translation of ancient poetry characterized by formal exactitude, can invite even a good translator to embellishments that are out of place3.

The three main features of this kind of "bad" translation (please notice that here Levý breaks one of the main principles of translation studies: an approach that, no longer descriptive, becomes prescriptive; on the other hand, such principles in 1963 had not yet been stated) are:

  1. stereotyping: the use of clichés and the superimposition of one's own view of the world and life onto the one expressed by the text poetics;
  2. the exterior characterization of characters: when a translator realizes she has grasped a feature, she exaggerates it in order to make it surely perceivable, and in doing so she overwhelms the balance of the prototext;
  3. the likelihood game: having to confer likelihood to some portions of text, the translator bases herself on her personal poetic view, and in such a way the translator's style levels and flattens the styles of the various prototexts.

A good translator, in Levý's opinion, is one who, setting aside her training, and using creativity, lends herself to discovery and selection and, from time to time, finds good solutions appropriate to the context, without using the 'autopilot' of the cliché, of her training. Discovery is thus contained, limited by selection, and inventive is limited by electivity. In other words, while it is necessary for the translator to have fantasy and linguistic smartness, it is also necessary that she be guided by a sober taste, so that she is not seduced by the temptation of expressivity, forgetting that her task is to reproduce the original without incurring style clumsiness.

Contrary to what one might expect, however, not only superficiality jeopardizes the good result of a translation: sometimes an expert translator who is philologically well equipped can find very good solutions for single translatants, but the artistic wholeness of the work is disrupted and the result is fragmentary, if exact. It is not a real metatext, it is a non-coherent set of translatants.

It is interesting to note the nervous and mental limitations to the translator's capabilities. Levý concludes his chapter on restyling with three points made by psycholinguistic analysis that would be hard to come by intuitively:

  1. translators accustomed to always translate from an A language to a B language gradually loose their ability to converse in the A language, because the lexical units of this language are associated more securely with lexical units of the B language than to other lexical units of the A language. Maybe, referring to Jakobson, one could say that the paradigmatic axis (selection) outrivals the syntagmatic axis (combination);
  2. translators accustomed to translate always from an A language to a B language and contrariwise loose their awareness of the structural differences between the two languages and run the heavy risk of using clumsy constructs in both languages;
  3. the habit of the experienced translator to create associative connections between lexical units of the A language and the B language promotes the production of stereotypes that sometimes hamper the style differentiation of the single translation.

Maybe the prospect is not always so melancholy as is described here; it is very important, however, to consider these possibilities, these mental mechanisms.


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 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. Rus-sian translation by Vladìmir Rossel´s, Iskusstvo perevoda, Moskvà, Pro-gress, 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, Benja-mins, 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 (Massachuset-ts), Massachu-setts Institute of Technology, 1956.

1 Canetti 1999: 13.
2 Levý 1963: 86.
3 Levý 1963: 86