Logos Multilingual Portal


The principles of language in the human consciousness


1. Literary language as the expression of national cultures



b) The problem of tradition

Every language subtends a tradition. The game of recovering, alluding and parodying indulged in by a writer tends invariably to appear as shadows cast on the elastic skin of the language. Accordingly, translators need first of all to be historians of their languages ¾ their own languages and the languages from which they translate. Hovering around every writer there will be a crowd of alter egos, examples and models from which he or she borrows in order, perhaps by some Freudian process, to "kill fathers". Just so, in Ulysses, Joyce has Stephen Dedalus sustain the hypothesis that in Hamlet Shakespeare projects some kind of death wish onto his own father...To ensure, using an image from Plato, that the shadows of the past cast onto the cave wall of literary time do not become the ghosts of real time, the translator must be fully conversant with the various linguistic "levels" of both the source and the target language. To this end, a fundamental distinction must be made between different "national" languages. There are inclusive languages and exclusive languages, and a given language will fit into one of these categories only insofar as allowed by the relationship between this same language and the stock from which it originates. In relation to the Saxon language, for example, English is inclusive and German exclusive. In the case of English, the syntactical structures make up a code emerging as an alternative to the neo-latin model, whereas in the case of German it is Latin style articulations that provide the material used to construct the meaning. In English, consequently, it is everyday language that gives shape to literary language whilst in German, as in Italian, the opposite is true. This explains the fact that in English writing, exception and transgression are features of literary style, whereas in German, apart from a few shining examples (Jean Paul, Hoffmann, Kafka) this is not the case. A translator therefore needs to understand what in each language is "the norm" and what is "artifice", remembering that art, semantically speaking, is always artifice. Exclusive languages tend to see archaisms as certifying linguistic nobility. The Saxon elements surfacing in modern German always take on connotations of nobility, victory, heroism ¾ generally romantic to a greater or lesser degree. In Italian the opposite occurs, and this will be confirmed readily by anyone familiar with the farces of Giulio Cesare Croce, creator of Bertoldo, or anyone who has read Tassoni's Secchia Rapita... And the rule is confirmed in English too: Tristram Shandy, for example, is a web of parodies on the classicist models of Elizabethan tragedy, which the author Sterne saw as an elaborate and pompous dressing-up of pure Englishness.

This is the aspect of translation which ¾ being the most mundane ¾ is the most laborious: reading, reflecting, and building up an index of terms, an archive of semantic registers, and matching the expressions found in different languages. An archaism used, say, by Gadda, a writer given to Dantesque turns of phrase, must be matched in the target language with an archaism that is either similarly evocative or has the same distortion of meaning. A useful exercise in the case of English is to take the chapter of Ulysses in which Joyce recites the entire history of the English language, from Chaucer to himself as Dedalus, in a verbal image of the library where the action takes place. To translate this chapter into Italian, one would need to start with the Sicilian poets and work through to the semantic experiments of, say, a Sanguinetti (Laborynthus). There are shortcuts available nonetheless. In effect, every narrative experience is by nature an archetypal experience. That is to say, one can find thematic affinities and analogies of intent common to different cultures. The case of Stefano d'Arrigo in post-war Italy closely resembles that of later Joyce. Horyncus Orca is a metanovel in which archaisms, regional idiolects, technicalisms, burlesque parodies and overlayered registers are jumbled together and "redeemed" as modes of expression in the same way as attempted by Joyce in Finnegan's Wake. Accordingly, d'Arrigo can provide the key to unlock the impossible puzzle posed by the late work of Joyce. In the same way, the ironic and autoreferential syntax used by Macchiavelli in Belfagor and Clizia, or the "heroically frenzied" style of Giordano Bruno's writing will provide invaluable guidelines for anyone translating Marlowe's Faust into Italian.