Logos Multilingual Portal

1. Linguistic codes: b) Connotation



b) Connotation

The interpretation of a literary text always follows a method reflecting the cultural background against which the interpretation of the text occurs. Accordingly, Dante's "selva oscura" is interpreted in the twentieth century of Freud as a metaphor for nervous depression: themal du siècle. The historicist school in vogue during the 1950s, on the other hand, saw the selva oscura as a symbol of the political controversies to which Dante was exposed in his youth. This second interpretation is a symbol, as it can be appreciated only with knowledge of the conventions of the age and the relative dictates affording the basis for such a reading. The symbol is the product of historicist self-identification; the metaphor, on the other hand, is the sap that oozes from the trunk of the Classics.

Connotation is the aura of a text. The position it occupies in the culture of which it is the expression, the progeny of texts spawned by it, the fuzzy and arguable clues of interpretation with which it tests its readers: all this produces a host of "added values", outside of the text, constituting its "archaeological" element¾and the literary translator who fails to master this aspect will be, as far as the classics are concerned, up a gum tree. One of the most significant scenes in theOdyssey is that in which Ulysses, tracing the events portrayed on his shield, illustrates the fall of Troy to the court of the Phaeacians. In this scene, Ulysses translates for himself the events of which he personally had been protagonist, realizing how at the moment when experience becomes language, all becomes recollection, and therefore "translation" of an experience. Every work of literature is a hermeneutic to be shared with the translator.

In the century just ended, the classics all dealt with the theme of reminiscence. Joyce'sUlysses is an archaeological work parexcellence. The episode in the library, with its journey through the English language from Chaucer to the modern writers, is a trip in the collective memory that the translator must have the courage to introject as a challenge, but to avoid resolving in methodology. From the Sicilian poets to theLaborynthus penned by Sanguineti, the Italian language too has made its synchronical journey. In France, the road runs from Le Jeu de Robin et Marion to Jarry, with his Pataphysique. In Germany, from the Minnesänger to the Alfred Döblin of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Connotation is substantially a story of ideas expressed through style.

Every perception has its perspective. What is important is that metaphor should not be reduced to symbol. Anyone attempting the hard task of translating that chapter of Wolfram von Eschenbach'sParsifalin which the young protagonist, witnessing the ceremony of the unveiling of the Holy Grail, listens to Amfortas reviewing the names of the precious stones brought by the handmaids, must be fully aware of the fact that in the Middle Ages of the Holy Roman Empire these would represent corresponding virtues of the human intellect. Topaz is the intuitive discernment of the divine, emerald is the heart of faith, ruby the prescience of the initiate... There is another list of precious stones in thePortrait of Dorian Grayby Oscar Wilde; albeit in this instance the connotation is certainly not metaphysical. The mediaeval stones are ideas made luminescence, whereas Wilde's jewels are superb visual red herrings. The philosophy of the German Middle Ages is one of appearance, whereas the aesthetics in Decadentism are those of semblance. There are dramatic opposites of connotation in the two languages.

Similarly, when Dante in theConviviodefines inspiration as "Amor che nella mente mi ragiona"(Love that within my mind discourses with me), to identify this "reasoning" as "logos" would be a great abuse. It corresponds rather to "perception" in English, to "vision" in French, to "Einfühlung" in German: something one can almost reach out and touch. The Middle Ages were connoted by visual codes. Cycles of frescoes on the walls of churches afforded a textbook from which the meaning of the Holy Scriptures could be comprehended. The representation of reality, in mediaeval times, was the supreme metaphysical exercise. We are a considerably long way here from that "free indirect discourse" on which the literature of the twentieth century is based. Mediaeval literature ignores perspective; that is to say it ignores consciousness. The literature of the twentieth century has to do with little else but consciousness.

The way leading from revealed to imagined truth is mapped by paths that find their synthesis in one of the most solidly avant-garde works ever conceived: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. In the catalogue of mishaps that result in the protagonist of this 'autobiographical' novel actually being born only when the story is almost at an end, a significant part is played by the figure of the doctor who delivers Mrs Shandy of the child. The tardiness with which this 'man-midwife' performs his duty has a decisive effect on subsequent events. In the third volume, the doctor, astride his modest pony, arrives at the Shandy home to attend the expectant mother, only to collide in the yard outside with a coach horse, ridden by the servant who has just been despatched in haste to fetch him. Slapstick comedy, and with the mother already going into labour upstairs, while in the parlour below, the uncle of the unborn Tristram holds forth on his favourite topic of military fortifications. Riding his hobby-horse. Indeed the hobby-horse is a theme recurring throughout the book, employed by Sterne no doubt to deride the infantilism displayed by individuals in seeking out metaphysical connotations for their whims and fancies."De gustibus non est disputandum", declares the narrator, "there is no disputing against Hobby- Horses". Indeed the hobby-horse is the wooden horse of the merry-go-round, that "caval de bois" to which Verlaine dedicates one of his most sinister poems, making the roundabout a symbol of the obsessiveness with which men nail themselves to the cross of their own destinies. And in the broom-handle variant, it is the conveyance of witches flying to their sabbaths... At all events, horses real and metaphorical play an important part in Sterne's novel, and the connotative entertainment must not be lost in translation.

Another example of tricky connotation: John Keats, in Hyperion, seeks to present a modern equivalent of Ovid'sMetamorphosis. At the beginning of the poem, the Titan Saturn sits on the ground, having been defeated by Jupiter. "Deep in the shady sadness of a vale", says Keats. "Deep" signifies "remoteness" as well as "depth", both in the direct sense and in its figurative metaphysical connotation. "Sadness" is the English rendering of that "Melancholy" seen by Ovid as reflecting the essential character of Saturn. It happens also that the Saxon word "saldness" indicates the condition of an individual belonging to the "Aldi", of noble birth. In Keats, therefore, the notion of Melancholy - the Latin connotation for the darkest of the four humours - has been replaced by a predetermined genetic characteristic: "saldness". Sadness in Saxon culture is a distinguishing mark of noble-mindedness, and it could hardly be otherwise for a people who in maintaining their independence from the Roman Empire had paid the price of total cultural isolation. So, to translate "sadness" as "made noble by melancholy" would not amount to an abuse, in connotative terms. And there is still that "shady". Strictly speaking this comes from "shade" in the sense of "shadow", but a shadow can also be a reflection, as of a face in the mirror, or an image, as of the memory the dead leave behind them in the minds of the living. To render "shady" as "like the image of the dead" would certainly be an overinterpretation, but it does untie an inextricable knot of connotations. Have we now gained a sufficiently clear picture? The second line speaks of a "healthy breath of morn", where "healthy" is "health-giving", and "breath of morn" the early morning air. The passage derives a dismal connotation from the idea that Keats could be prophesying his own consumption, of which the spasms would intensify as the day wore on. If so, then "shady" is the shadow of Keats in death that induces Keats the author to keep breathing the "breath of health", in order to erform the obligations imposed by his own Shade.

In effect, the inner life encompasses the most occult level of connotation in a classic. Often, the stylistic device through which the unconscious expresses itself is a rhythmical figure. Telling the tale ofThe Raven, Edgar Allan Poe delineates a methodology of inspiration that is wholly paradoxical, combining the utmost fascination with the most inflexible, almost 'mechanical' rigour. And yet, the translator who does not render the obsessive ring of that"nevermore" enunciated by the bird of ill omen come by stealth into the neoclassical chamber where a noble spirit laments a prematurely departed lover, against the connotative backdrop of Calvinist hymnody with its regularly recurring compound adverbs, indicating the irrevocability of fate, will fail to capture the tolling of a bell implicit in the solemn call. Neither will there be any perception of that sense of unnaturalness, of deviation from the cosmic order, created by the fact of selecting the mindless mimicry of Corvus Corax as the mouthpiece for this sacred voice. To translate"nevermore"as being "never more" or "never again" (mai piùin Italian) would mean splitting the adverb and changing a single multi-syllabic utterance into a resounding and assertive peroration. An archaic form of never (giammaiin Italian) would be insincere. The only solution is to widen the scope by imitating a connotatively analogous model. In A Zacinto, Foscolo's initial "né più mai" (roughly, "nor ever again") epitomizes a long interior monologue of which the connotation is redundancy; but whereas Poe's method is to raise the intensity gradually, by accumulation, Foscolo begins his poem at a point where brooding over pain has already dissolved in the immanence of contemplation. Rendering "nevermore" as "né più mai" means a loss of effect dramaturgically, although an additional élan is derived from the urgency of the connotation.

Thus, the art of connotation operates within two parameters: historical memory and consistency with the interior dramaturgy of the author. These move in two opposite directions, never coinciding. The one is synchronic, the other diachronic. One places phenomena in the evolution of language and culture, the other isolates their unique significance. In selecting which parameter to favour, for an effective translation, one must not neglect the need - in the case of a poetical text - for "vertical reading". Assonances, rhymes, internal references represent the most important connotative element in a text. The inscription that Dante reads on the Gate of Hell, Per me si va tra nella città dolente Per me si va nell'eterno dolore Per me si va tra la perduta gente creates a vertical and increasingly powerful association between "dolente", "gente" and "dolore" which, through redundancy, encapsulates the substance of the entire cantica. The translator in this instance must do everything to find a vertically assonant succession of words capable of producing the same effect in the target language. Similarly, in Hyperion, Keats creates a vertical association in lines three and four between "eve's one star" and "quiet as a stone", suggesting a paradoxical connotation: the assonance between star and stone, whereby the idea of the star being dead - notwithstanding its light still reaches the Earth - is planted in the reader's consciousness. It is in this symbology that the aura of the entire poem is shrouded. To fail to render it would mean shifting the connotative axis completely.

The problem of connotation therefore has to do with the mental space that a text ultimately occupies in the consciousness of the reader. A translator who alters its topography will have committed the worst abuse possible. After all, when Gertrude Stein says "a rose is a rose is a rose", she is seeking simply to express this obviousness of meaning that springs from a correct connotative strategy, which says that the respect paid to a text is the awareness of the spaces in which its drama is played out. The last words spoken by Hamlet, "the rest is silence", open a window on that same cosmic time whose immensity the Prince had pondered in his famous soliloquy. An Italian translator back in the 1960s rendered "that is the question" as "tutto qui?" This is what happens when we come up short on the subject of connotation...