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8 - Translation loss: time factors in the comparison of metatexts

"At this time, when I was starting to read, English had an irresistible effect on me, and no one had ever used English to deliver such a speech to me in which I played such an important part"1

Another aspect that makes it interesting to examine time-affected factors of translation loss no longer concerns the comparison of prototext and metatext, but the comparison of many versions of the same prototext as related to their time location.

Popovič, with his semiotic approach to the problem, identifies the specific trait, from this point of view, of translation as compared to other kinds of communication acts, like for example the drafting of the original. The latter is a unique and unrepeatable act, having a clearly defined place in time. The potential translations of this first creative act are, however, manifold, probably infinite. Balcerzan, quoted by Popovič, writes:

the translation of any foreign work always maintains the character of one of many possible communications. What marks a translation’s authenticity is, therefore, its multiplicity, its repeatability (Balcerzan 1968: 23).

After such a description, translation becomes an oxymoron: it is a text that, in order to be authentic, must be repeatable, must be multipliable. Forcing the terms of the argument a little, one could say that a translation is the text that, in order to be authentic, must be a copy. Which sounds overtly paradoxical, especially if one compares translation to works in the field of figurative arts.

Usually, when one inquires on the facility with which a translation becomes "dated", or simply when people wonder why a given classical text, already translated many a time into a given language, is still being translated by new and different translators, one looks for the feature that makes these texts so rapidly outdated in the way translators work. Sometimes people say that the reason for such ageing lies in the fact that a text, brought forth in a "natural" way within a given language and culture, and endowed with given spontaneous elements (direct expression of the author’s creativity) or artificial (creativity mediated by the technical capabilities of the author), must be recreated – in a thoroughly artificial way – in another language and culture. For this reason, even all the aspects that in the prototext seemed spontaneous, in the metatext now become forced; whenever they appear spontaneous, it is a feigned spontaneity, because, evidently, the translator tries to reproduce another person’s creativity, and this action, since it doesn’t concern one’s own creativity, cannot be anything but feigned.

Popovič inverts such a view centered upon the individual translator’s way of working to favor a view focused on the specific nature of the translatory communicative act. Let us read his own words:


The seriality of the translation as mode of its existence as compared to the completeness of the original creative work is a dangerous propriety. Due to its more elevated degree of "openness", a translation is sooner subject to ageing. It can find itself excluded from the literary "swim". This fact also determines the place of the translation within the literary process (Popovič 1975: 128).

Such a view can also be interpreted as revolutionary because, in a sense, it would reverse cause and effect: it would not be the translation’s ageing to cause re-translation, but re-translation – and the resulting possibility for comparison of the different versions – that emphasizes ageing. In other words, it would be the appearance of a new version of a given prototext to emphasize the deficiencies and the translation loss implied by a previous version and until that point considered as "canonical", wholly accepted as "representing" that prototext.

The cause of ageing must be sought in the circumstance upon which the translation’s language and style depend on the expressive canon effective at the moment the translation is done. The receiver also abides by such a canon, the receiver being, in the case of translation, the group of readers, among whom also is found the "proto-reader", i.e. the translator. The receiver evaluates the translation both in comparison to previous actualizations of the same prototext in the receiving language, and in relation to the original. In Popovič’s opinion, language and style undergo a strong transformation produced not only by the peculiarities of the text, but also by the translator’s efforts; for these reasons, the modifications the original undergoes create a metatext that is less resistant to uses or abuses, less stable in time.

In the case of a translation tending towards acceptability – and, in Toury’s logic, not having philological correctness as a principal dominant – the metatext is created for contemporary readers, therefore, its requisites are dictated by the criteria of acceptability of a given generation of readers and critics: in this sense, it tends to age more quickly (but for the same reasons an original text also ages.

Actually, the ageing of a translation is not an absolute phenomenon, it is a relative one:

Examples taken from practice show that readers are interested also the oldest translations. In them there is the attraction of what is old, a sort of archaic gloss, the same of the prototexts of antique origin (Popovič 1975: 129).

The ageing of translations, seen from the point of view of translation loss, can also be interpreted in these terms. The acceptability canon of readers of each generation determines, depending on its historical moment, a given readers’ propensity for given types of loss. (Of course it is not taken for granted that readers and criticists perceive the phenomenon in this way: it is much more probable that they are aware of their own preferences in a positive sense. In other words, it is more probable for them to say, "I like a text having these characteristics" rather than "I like a text that omits such aspects of communication". The principle of "semiotic noise" expressed in the previous unit being understood, it is clear that every different communicative – and translational – approach, each different chosen dominant has a corresponding kind of loss.)

Considering translational taste in this historical key can be very interesting. And, in light of the existence of translational loss, it seems thoroughly sensible to think of the problem in these terms. In such a view, translation is the communicative act that is a repeatable, bearer of loss, in relation to which a reader’s taste can also be expressed ex negativo: and the predilection of one version as compared to the others is also a predilection for a given loss of the message’s content as compared to other losses represented in other versions, be they real or potential.


Bibliographical references

BALCERZAN E. Poetyka przekładu artystycznego, Nurt, 1968.

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.

POPOVIC A. Teória umeleckého prekladu, Tatran, 1975. Russian translation by I. A. Bernštejn and I. S. Cernjavskaja, edited by N. A. Kondrašov, Problemy hudožestvennogo perevoda, Moskvà, Vysšaja škola, 1980.

1 Canetti 1999 : 51.