The Trouble with Translation…

I studied Italian at university and very much enjoyed it considering I chose the subject without any prior lessons or experience. Going in, I was armed with a small phrasebook of basic phonetics revealing how to pronounce fundamental numbers (1-20, the following 10s and 100), and each letter of the alphabet. Admittedly, I was heavily relying on my tutors to dutifully guide me through the labyrinth of language-learning to emerge fluent, attributed with Italian flare.

After two years of studying, my phrasebook was much larger and continuing to expand – included were long, erudite phrases that made frequent appearances in my oral exams over the years. Lectures and tutorials were presented exclusively in Italian to prepare us for our third year spent abroad. We were all anxiously excited to experience life in the land of pasta, pizza and passionate conversation. (I may write another post going into greater detail about my wonderful/tumultuous year spent in Bologna). It was in the fourth and final year of university that we began to delve deeper into the premise of language learning. I took extra lessons and classes regarding the theory of translation – I couldn’t get enough – they were the educational highlights of my week. I found the act of translating excerpts of novels/poetry/adverts both to and from Italian almost like a fun game. Realistically, it was more of a difficult puzzle. I would spend hours doing the homework, carefully choosing the right words almost to obsession so the sentences might sound naturally coherent rather than stilted and amateurish.

In Experiences in Translation, Umberto Eco writes: ‘every sensible and rigorous theory of language shows that a perfect translation is an impossible dream’, sadly I unwillingly agree. Establishing fluent semantic semblance across any two languages is very difficult to achieve. The skill of translation lies in being able to adapt and manipulate the target language, rather than directly converting each phrase in unwavering and absolute accordance. It took me a while to learn this, I felt that I couldn’t much alter the original writing. So…how much rejigging was too much? I don’t want to start changing the story or losing the narrative. I certainly came to appreciate the dedication and skill involved in the practice of good translation.

Additionally, we discussed the art of interpretation in class. In particular, interpreters working in high-intensity environments e.g. those providing live translations between world leaders during summits. It is a super intense multi-tasking activity: without losing any words, they must simultaneously listen to the live feed and give accurate renditions to important, listening ears that could affect life-changing policies.

It is not just a matter of gathering full sentences, however. To convey a faithful translation of the speaker’s words, the interpreter needs to understand the mentality of the client, discovering the context of their forethought and emotional input whilst putting their own feelings to one side. Crucially, they must remain a neutral party, capable of analysing high-pressure situations, and potentially manipulating language (to a certain extent!) to avoid possible dangerous miscommunications (see 2005 thriller The Interpreter starring Nicole Kidman). Broadly speaking, the interpreter is seen as an empty channel through which words are converted, however, there have been incidences over the years when mediators have been at the receiving end of the ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ complex. This can happen when clients become either frustrated due to nonsensical conversions (possibly due to the other party, rather than poor translation work), or with the actual translated content. The mediator/interpreter may then be used as a scapegoat and, consequently, unfairly condemned.

‘Translation is like a bridge…not just regarding meaning but also feeling’

Returning to translating literature…

My dissertation focus (written in Italian) was based around the first novel of the Elena Ferrante series, My Brilliant Friend. It begins the telling of a complicated and lifelong relationship between two girls growing up in restless post-war Naples. Having read the novel in both languages, I thought it might be my best chance to achieve a respectable grade. The original title was something along the lines of: ‘To what extent does the author reveal herself as the main character etc.’, chosen because Ferrante uses 1st person narrative from the perspective of a character with the same first name as her, who also becomes a successful writer. Unfortunately, I discovered that Ferrante was writing under a pseudonym and no one knew who she really was…things were becoming more complicated. The essay eventually laboured around speculation of her identity/why she was hiding etc., and the reasons for the book’s success outside of Italy (pleasingly allowing me to drone on about my favourite subject). The translation by the brilliant Ann Goldstein (who faithfully completed the whole series) allowed for a much wider audience, ultimately causing My Brilliant Friend to be named as a New York Times Bestseller – but not without some issues.

Because the novel is set in the deep south of Italy, the Italian version contains many instances of Neapolitan colloquialisms and rough slang that cleverly form the blazing atmosphere of their environment. Comparing the translation with the original shows that such phrases were either missed out or converted into English slang equivalents. It brought to my attention how sociological and cultural variants play a crucial role in the comprehension and reception of interpreted words. Jokes are often completely left out of translations due to lexical/cultural differences.

As I stated in my diss, perhaps this brings into question the extent to which the translation is still the work of the original author. Does the author’s work lose its integrity after its remoulding by translators? I remember thinking in circles trying to get my head around this question, and then attempting to translate my ramblings into conditioned Italian (it lead to reworking the title the night before the deadline…). It does mean that…but it also doesn’t because it’s not the translator’s original story, they’ve been hired…but it does because there’s no way around inevitable alterations and people are reading the words of another author… but Goldstein worked closely with Ferrante ensuring faithful renditions…does that make it a shared authorship? etc.

I think I comfortably concluded that perhaps it’s up to the reader/listener. It doesn’t take anything away from the original, many won’t even notice the differences or exclusions. For without the translation, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it in the first place. In fact, many people have chosen to learn a language just to read their favourite novels as they were originally intended – to fully appreciate the work and its nuances (Война и миръ anyone?). Overall, I have come to realise (and appreciate, of course) the important subtleties and potential ethical dilemmas regarding alterations of translated texts.

In the end, I’m glad I followed my instinct to study a language. I eventually developed a discipline to self-study, it upped my confidence in speaking (in English too !), and, more than anything, it cultivated my love of words/awe of language and linguistics, leading to a more defined outline of a career path. Although, I don’t think I’ll ever lose that feeling of frustration when it comes to choosing the right word when writing anything down.