Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Contra literam

The big idea dominating EU affairs in the late eighties, when I took part in a recruitment test for European Parliament interpreters, was the so-called ‘1992 programme’ to dismantle all remaining barriers to internal trade by the end of 1992. In languages other than English, in particular Spanish, I suspect it may have been the (more sensible) practice to refer to the target as 1993 rather than 1992. So it was that the speech given at the test for interpretation from Spanish into English happened to refer to 1993 in that context, and candidates were faced with the dilemma of saying either ‘1993’ and being damned for their ignorance of current affairs, or ‘1992’ and risk summary elimination for a manifest contresens.

This came to mind last week when a taxi strike in Dublin had those of us with flights to catch scouring the airwaves for news as to when the stoppage was likely to end.

The Irish-language radio station RnaG reported
leanfaidh sé ar aghaidh go ham dinnéir
literally: it [the strike] will go on until dinnertime.

Meanwhile, the English-language RTE1 announced that it would end at lunchtime.

Now it’s well known that the same mealtime (and perhaps the same meal) can be designated as either dinner or lunch depending on social and cultural milieu. In political discourse, it seems, people who have their dinner in the middle of the day are down-to-earth, no-frills types while those who eat lunch are effete sophisticates.

Perhaps there is an implicit assumption that Irish-speakers belong to the former category and Anglophones to the latter.

But what is sure is that the drafter of the Irish version – which, since taxi drivers are not wont to issue press releases in Irish, was essentially a translation – has boldly gone where not too many translators, amateur or professional, would ever think of going i.e. against the literal meaning of the original, using language that on the face of it contradicts the source text, in order to render the underlying message more effectively. There are a great many translators, it has to be said, who cannot bring themselves to stray even one whit from the literal straight-and-narrow, as discussed previously. But even those who realise that a calque is not a translation and accept the need occasionally to translate praeter literam will probably baulk at the notion of translating contra literam.

So bravo bravissimo to the intrepid newswriter at RnaG (who should of course be fired if anybody missed their flight).

I will be keeping eye and ear open for further examples of translation contra literam.

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