Logos Multilingual Portal

Epilogue - The Burlesque


c) Does idiomatic mean automatic?

Naturally, it is in idiomatic expressions that the ‘collapse of translations’ produces its wildest effect; thus in English to say it’s "raining cats and dogs" is perfectly normal when it is pouring with rain, but a literal translation of this expression will give the impression that a plane carrying the animals of a big international circus has lost its load in mid-flight!

Language is not only a way for describing the outside world; it is also a continuous mixing of the limits within which the meaning establishes the order of things. For example, there is a big difference between rendering Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land as "La terra desolata" or "La terra devastata": in the former case the existentialist connotation of human existence as consciousness in the world almost becomes a motto; in the latter, the mechanical translator discovers Eliot as one of the fathers of the anti-globalization "people of Seattle". After which, one will remain disappointed in having to note the complete lack of an ecological perspective in the poem.

In another field, another example: in high fidelity an autocratic regime rules, where the sound asserts itself as the master and imposes its heavy burden on the ears of its poor subjects. If you doubt this, ask a mechanical translator what "reach and power of tone" means. His rendering - once again with Italian as the target language - may read: "l'estensione del potere del suono non ha limiti di campo" (the extension of the power of the sound does not have limits in field). The only way of avoiding it is to flee to virgin lands, or – according to the same translator – do a "landscape". But do not ask him to plan the trip, or your flight will probably end in the "terre di fuori" (outside lands); from which one can deduce that for the mechanical translator the world is still flat.

In fact, every translation, in being the definition of the limits within which the meaning of a text has value, is an examination of the imagination of those who attempt it. But what imagination can a mechanical translator have? For him, the difference between "fantasy" and "imagination" corresponds to that between "ghost" and "imaginary"; in fact, as everyone knows, ghosts do not belong to the oneiric dimension, but to the more objective dimension of realism. Moreover, every translation is an act of cultural grafting; and, according to Steiner: "No behavioural fact can totally or unambiguously account for the totality of the discursive acts or rules that determine them, in any linguistic system." And this is the crux of the problem: the mechanical translator is guilty of an excess, and not a lack, of normative intentions. In fact, he wants to agree with the discursive acts in their entirety. Hence, in Italian, a "pick-up" becomes "ciò che becca da sopra" (that which stings from above): a translation that would be acceptable only if the vinyl pieces placed on the record player were The Flight of the Bumble-Bee or the Firebird Suite. And if the execution is particularly good, it would certainly deserve a "standing ovation", or, an "ovazione dritta sui propri piedi" (oval-shaped object right on the feet); and we can see the famous pianist struck on his patent leather shoes by a solid steel oval ball and rushed to hospital!

The corollary of our thesis is rather disturbing: the mechanical translator is the end-result of a culture afraid of emptiness, and therefore of every interpretation; a culture that has increasingly become "the realm of quantity", where the signs are never symbols, or references to an elsewhere, but securities payable on demand in the market of meaning. In the field of history, the phenomenon can lead to very ambiguous revisionist results. Bloody Mary is one of the worst war criminals in modern history; reducing her to "Maria l'insanguinata" (Blood-stained Mary) would risk making her wickedness seem like the fruit of menstrual pains (that perhaps were partly blame?).
On the other hand, figurative meanings are one of the damnati loci for a mechanical translator. Every one knows that Beethoven was deaf; he managed to compose just the same thanks to his formidable ‘inner ear’, which is the ability to hear the music inside one’s head. Through a feed-back effect, if we transpose the idiomatic expression from English into Italian we obtain "orecchio intimo", and then, back into English, "intimate ear", with two possible interpretations: Beethoven’s best friend was seriously maimed in the war against Napoleon, and was left with just one ear, or else Beethoven had ears in that anatomical area that never sees the sun. And the nonsense of mechanical translation becomes even worse if we combine the translation with metaphor and figurative connotation: in harmony a "reach tone" is a note eluding the order of chord members, and the dissonance resolves on the following chord; if a mechanical translator renders the expression with "nota in fuga" (fleeing note), harmony ceases to be the highest anthropological expression of universal gravity and becomes the realm of madness. In fact, the Fugue is the only musical form where "reach tones" can never appear!