Monday, January 29, 2007


Unsuppressed bitterness

EUObserver, like EurActiv, is a site dedicated to EU news stories. And like EurActiv, the Economist, and so many others it too seems incapable of getting the facts straight on the EU's working languages (see recent posts):
On the website of the commission's External Relations directorate-general, an explanatory text on the March anniversary celebrations is available in the three working languages of the EU - French, English and German - as well as Spanish, but not available in Italian
The story itself, dated 18 January 2007, is this:
Italian EU commissioner Franco Frattini has in an unusual step criticized his own institution for not translating a website promoting the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in Italian.

"I cannot suppress my bitterness and dissatisfaction over this decision that hits the Italian language", Mr Frattini said in a statement circulated among journalists.
He cannot suppress his bitterness? Well he shouldn’t have to – that’s the translator’s job, surely.

Because what is meant (Italian original: non posso tacere la mia amarezza) is not of course bitterness - that most unstatesmanlike of sentiments – but disappointment, regret etc.

As in the BBC report of the Zinedine Zidane interview last summer (earlier post), this ‘literal’ translation strikes the wrong note and misrepresents the speaker.

I am surprised to see however that the practice of literal translation is not without its eminent defenders.

In his otherwise excellent book on translating the French legal system, Martin Weston, following Peter Newmark apparently, identifies literal or word-for-word translation as the basic method of translation. Newmark himself is quoted as saying:
‘a good translator abandons a literal version only when it is plainly inexact or […] badly written. A bad translator will always do his best to avoid translating word for word.’
If the bad translator who translated Frattini’s 'amarezza' as 'bitterness' was doing his best to avoid translating word for word, then his best, it has to be said, was simply not good enough.

How can word for word (a.k.a. ‘formal lexical equivalence’) be described as a method, anyway? In fact, what exactly does it mean? How do you know which (target) word to use for any given (source) word taken in isolation?

Is it the one you find in the dictionary? The one that looks most like it? The one that first springs to mind??

Let’s assume it’s the dictionary option, this being on the face of it less absurd than the others. If you look up amarezza in an Italian-English dictionary (e.g. the Oxford/Paravia, self-described as “the world’s most trusted dictionary”), bitterness is the first and more than likely the only translation you will find. So in that sense Frattini’s bad translator was perfectly faithful to this method while producing a perfectly unfaithful translation.

But apologists for the literal method explain that if it produces the wrong result a different and better method is then applied to get the right result. But in that case why not use that other method from the outset?

I suppose word-for-word can be understood as the basic method in the sense that if there is no alternative available it may well be better than nothing.

For example, people taking their first steps in a foreign language tend to piece together phrases consisting of word-by-word ‘translations’ from their native language. That doesn't take them very far though and they only really get going once they start building up an autonomous stock of expressions and patterns in the new language.

Similarly, generations of oppressed and apathetic schoolchildren have no doubt used the word-for-word method to grind through their thème and version exercises.

And novice translators typically resort to it before they realize that word-for-word is not how translation works - because it’s not how languages work.

Interpreters probably realize it faster. Simultaneous interpreting one word at a time can be ‘a terrible strain’…

From The Simpsons (The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show):
Homer: How'd you get to be so good?
June: Oh, just experience I suppose. I started out as Roadrunner. [as Roadrunner] Meep!
Homer: You mean "meep-meep"?
June: No, they only paid me to say it once, then they doubled it up on the soundtrack. [to herself] Cheap bastards.

[Myers gives them their scripts.]

Homer: Is this cartoon going on the air live?
June: No, Homer. Very few cartoons are broadcast live, it's a terrible strain on the animators' wrists.

I remember I used to use Martin Weston's list of approaches to translation for class discussion. The kind of things he discusses are vital, but there were always problems in detail if one tried to find German-English examples. What does he mean by 'court of appeal - usu. without capitals, since there is more than one in France - is the ideal and, indeed, the only possible translationof cour d'appel'? Does he mean 'appeal court' won't do? And if there were only one cour d'appel in France, then capitalizing it would clash with the English one.

It was because of this kind of thing that I could never remember his list of techniques without looking at the handout. An excellent book, of course, as you say.
Indeed. The more I read this section the less sense it makes. It just doesn't seem very deeply thought through.

I can only imagine that this was a chapter he felt he had to have in there and stuck together from bits of Newmark etc. before moving on to the interesting bits.
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