Thursday, June 9, 2011

Italian proverbs- tradurre e' tradire

Tradurre e' tradire- translation is betrayal.This is one of the best-known Italian proverbs, to the extent that people think at all about translation and translating. That is, not to a very great extent. It is also a thorn in the side of translators everywhere.

But at its most basic level, it is of course true; a truism, even. It is always a compromise to have to translate or interpret, a compromise dictated by the fact that people need and want to communicate across linguistic lines, but are necessarily limited in their language skills. I myself always try to avoid reading a book in translation if I know the language, even if the book would be more accessible here in the States in English.

It is also true on a deeper level. Translation is not some sort of cryptography whereby you transpose one code into another, and this is why automatic translation doesn't really work and probably never will. Translation is a work of inter-cultural interpretation, and as such necessarily fails to render its target perfectly because two different cultures are different and not equivalent. In the pages of this blog I've often brought out the semantic gaps between English and Italian. For instance, solitudine in Italian means both "loneliness" and "solitude." There is no separate word in Italian for loneliness. To my mind, this reflects a cultural difference- the normally gregarious Italians conflate the two ideas, supposing perhaps that to be alone is to be lonely, a distinction that an English-speaker can readily make because it's built into the language.

But what bothers translators (justifiably) about the saying is that it belittles their role and their work. From my not insignificant experience as a translator I can tell you that it is not easy, and it is especially not easy to do well in a timely manner, which is the expectation. The devaluation of this work is reflected in poor compensation and working conditions. In a vicious cycle, the idea that "anybody can do it" leads to the fact that translations are often done by just anybody who has studied the language, and often translating out of their language e.g. an Italian translating into English. The latter is almost always a very bad idea. The results, often laughable (and sometimes hilarious) further detract from the status and credibility of translators- except that these people are not translators. Unfortunately, a really good translation is inconspicuous by its presence; you won't even think of the translation, its quality, or the person doing it if the translation is so good that you feel that you are losing yourself in the original.

Overall, a semi-thankless task, so think twice before repeating the proverb.