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Epilogue - The Burlesque


b) Metaphoric for whom?

For a physicist, feed-back is a well-known phenomenon of resonance. Naturally, a mechanical translator will not grasp the metaphoric meaning, and the resultant "taking food backwards" thus places doubt on what is the alimentary canal by which scientists assimilate nutritious substances (problems of ulcers forcing them to resort to liquid food?). In the literary field, a similar problem of confusion between levels can produce uncontrollable consequences. In Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fè, the protagonist dies in the fire in his library. If we entrust the rendering of this highly expressive page to a mechanical translator, we will find that what caused his death was a "red rooster" that stuck to his clothes. A very strange death indeed; also considering Canetti’s passion for the grotesque. In fact, in German, "fire" is metaphorically defined as "Roter Hahn" (red rooster). Of course, the mechanical translator does not appreciate the pungent synaesthetic verticality of the metaphor. The same thing occurs with a poem by Byron, in which a character is taken to an "unwept" grave "without the sound of bells", where the sound of bells has a transient quality: the height of abstraction for a mechanical translator; hence in an Italian translation we may see a "scampanato" (belling), which in certain dialects alludes to someone who wears bell-bottomed pants, but clearly has nothing do to with a death.

An even more absurd result is achieved by mechanical translators with ‘translated’ meanings. In German, "Theil" is used to indicate that a melody is to be played by violins in ‘divided parts’. Therefore "zwei Theil" means "in two divided parts". A mechanical translator rendered it literally, giving the composer’s marking as: "With violins broken in two parts". The players could always go to the concert with glue and recompose the instruments thus made easier to carry! In medical science, the play of translated meanings gives even more ludicrous results: one can risk seeing a pacemaker transformed into a "maker of steps"; which is certainly not what the instrument is designed to do.

Everyone knows that a by-pass is a diverting of the blood flow to prevent stenoses, thrombi, etc.. Few will manage to comprehend, within the limits of their own medical knowledge, that "passante ai lati" (passer-by at the sides) rendered in Italian by a mechanical translator. What is a passer-by doing inside a hollow vein affected by cholesterol? And why that wary passing close to walls? Perhaps we are on the set of Fantastic Voyage, the film about a group of miniaturized doctors, and their therapeutic periplus inside a human body.