Traduttore, traditore?*

*Translator, traitor (ital.)

The importance of a good translation, i.e. of a good, faithful rendering of the original into a new language is something most people would agree about. Quotes such as Jose Saramago’s: “Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature” are an elixir for anyone who is serious about translation as a career.

But how does one define a “good” translation? As intercultural communication specialists, we are often humbled by contrary opinions, like this one expressed by Cervantes: “Translating from one language to another (…), is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.” Not to mention the one in today’s blog title (see above)…

Getting it Just Right

Can a translation ever be a true and faithful copy of the original? How much duty of loyalty do we actually owe to the original words and how much to their author’s (presumed) intent? How are we to understand Maurice Coindreau’s observation that, “Firstly, a translator is a person with no rights, only duties. He must show loyalty to the author like a dog, but as a special dog who behaves like a monkey.” If I’m not mistaken, Mauriac wrote: “The novelist is God’s monkey.”  Well, the translator is the novelist’s monkey. He is obliged to pull the same faces, like it or not.” And how are we, as creative types, able to reconcile that with our purpose/need/role to knead, mold and adjust the message to the target audience or the contemporary ethos? After all, we are in the business of producing “the right talk/text at the right time”, and that, as Dell Hymes puts it, “requires sociocultural knowledge” and its application.

Creativity in Translation?

Knowing just how much creativity is allowed in a translation depends first and foremost on the customer’s brief, but when a dialogue with the author(s) is impossible, there are a few other clues to go by. The situation and its typical norms of interaction, the participants, the goal or purpose of communication, the way and order in which things are expressed, the manner in which the communication is being carried out, its channel or medium, the genre to which the text belongs to all carry different but significant weights in analyzing and interpreting a text or in justifying linguistic choices.

A good communicator (and a translator should be a particularly gifted one) must be aware that he or she mediates between “homo significans”. According to Chandler’s Semiotics, we are all meaning makers through the creation and interpretation of signs. A word is a sign, but so is an image, a photograph, the things in the photograph, the typeface, font and layout of the text etc. Meaning is created along two different axes: the syntagmatic (the linear, “functional” one of arranging signs in a certain order to create well-formed sentences and intelligible texts) and the paradigmatic axis.

A Matter of Combining Signs

The syntagmatic axis should be a no-brainer for anybody with in-depth language competence. But it is often on the paradigmatic one, the axis of mutually-exclusive word choices, that most battles are waged on the translation front. Lots of delicate questions arise: Why did the author pick one word over the other? Decisions must be made: What connotations and personal interpretations will be added to the translation by the choice of one synonym over another? It is the paradigmatic axis that often gives insight into the adopted register, with its choice of vocabulary, degree of formality, and acceptable level of variation. Some registers are highly technical and closed, on wrong term can cause the entire text to lose credibility. Others are open and less specialized.

What is the subject matter? What is the relationship between writer and reader? What is the preferred mode of interaction – in writing or orally? What goal does the author pursue? How is this particular category of text usually consumed by the target audience? All of these details matter when producing text. With translation, the added complication of connecting two different cultural realms (with their differing myths and representations) enters the equation. Cultural awareness is key. It helps anchor the text, stabilize it, intuit the most likely interpretation.

In transcreation, word for word translation is excluded; our duty lies with the paradigm; recreating the intended interpretation, reaction or response becomes imperative. Empathy and updated knowledge of local realities and ideological shifts are essential to position readers and perform cultural adaptations of intertextual clues. This is particularly tricky when translating ads for national markets that are far apart in terms of socio-economic development and cultural traditions – and where sign ambiguity is a real issue.

The Cultural Equation

Globalization has allowed more people to tune in to the discussion, but has by no means leveled their systems of signs. A good translator is, therefore, always a keen cultural researcher, a marketer, a linguistic detective and – quite often – an actor: someone who interprets, elucidates and clarifies. A good translator should be, above all, a good, careful reader in the sense mentioned by Alberto Manguel: “He or she can pull a text to pieces, remove its skin, cut it to the bone, follow each artery and vein and thence fashion a new living being.” A creator, after all. Not just a coroner.

Can this new text, this new living being, walk and talk and embrace the target reader? Does it have life, depth, breadth? Can it engage? How will it survive another taking apart – that of the end reader, when he or she attempts to make sense of it? Is it understandable? Is it decipherable without being duplicitous? And will it keep people listening or turning the page? How medium-dependent is its structure? Social psychology has proven that the only medium where the intelligibility of content actually increases as it becomes more complex is the written text. In other words, keep videos and audios fairly simple and use a written article (like this one!) for elaborate explanations and complicated concepts.

So, you see, when commissioning a text, a piece of “content”, or a translation, questions abound and they don’t have simple answers. Rely on competent and passionate linguists, who see beyond the mechanics of literal translation, who understand how successful texts are put together, and are happy to dig deeper to get your whole personality across in vivid color.

Do you have any questions? YourTranscreator is happy to assist with professional and creative translation, media and market research, and intercultural project support.

Stay safe!

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