The Fundamentals of Translation
Introductory Course with Exemplifying Tables for B. A. Students
translations by Alice Rampinelli, Anna Paradiso, Bruno Osimo
1 Communicating always means translating
1.1 What is translation?
When speaking about translation, people usually think of the trasposition of a text from a language (a natural code) to another, different from the one in which the text was originally conceived and written. As a matter of fact, that is just a peculiar subprocess within the boundless universe of translation. One of the first steps towards a more scientific and complete approach to translation as it is generally thought of consists in acknowledging all its potential aspects.
The translation process is often described with metaphors relating to space and movement. In some languages the terms referring to “source text” and “target text” are undoubtedly linked to the notion of “space”. In Italian, for instance, “testo di partenza” and “testo d’arrivo” (literally, “starting text” and “arrival text”) refer to the semantic field of runs and races. The same is true, for example, for the French “texte de départ” and “texte d’arrivée”.
To some extent, it seems that translation were a sort of transportation of something (apparently words) from one place to another. And this might be due to the fact that even the Latin word from which “translation” derives, “translatus”, comes from the verbtrans-fero meaning “to bring on the opposite side of”. But even though it is true that translation has a spatial dimension, it also has a temporal and cultural one, all three made up of a number of other interrelated elements.
To avoid all the words which are too explicitly linked to the semantic field of departures and arrivals, which remind of military targets (“target text”) or which imply the misleading idea that there were no previous influences on the first text (“source text”), one may call “original” the text from which the translation process stems, and “translation” the text resulting from it. However, the word “translation” does not allow to make a distinction between the process and the outcome.
That is why the ideal terms would be “prototext” (i.e. “first text”, the original text) and “metatext” (i.e. the subsequent text, deriving from the first one). Such terms were coined by the Slovak semiotician Anton Popovič (1933-1984), who gave a substantial boost to translation studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, his ideas spread to the Western countries only after he had prematurely died.
It is also necessary to define the notion of “text”. The first definition that comes to mind when speaking of a text is a consistent group of written words with a unified structure that makes it a whole. But according to semiotics, the notion of “text” needs to be extended to nonverbal languages, such as music, figurative arts, cinema, advertisement, natural environment, street signals, and so on.
The consequences of such a widening of horizons are clear: if by “translation” we mean any process transforming a prototext into a metatext, with the text belonging to any verbal or nonverbal language or code (and by the way, prototext and metatext can even be expressed with the same code!), then the notion of “translation process” embraces a very wide range of processes, related to all possible transformations of texts.
That is why the translation process includes apparently different phenomena, such as film translation (often called “movie version”, a definition which does not stress its belonging to the sphere of translation) and intertextual translation (quotations, references, allusions, and so on). Already in 1683 the French churchman and scholar Pierre-Daniel Huet wrote in his De interpretatione:
the term “translation” also refers to the clarification of abstruse doctrines, to the interpretation of enigmas and dreams, to the interpretation of oracles, to the solution of complex issues, and, finally, to the spreading of all that is unknown. (Huet 1683:18)
In the previous table, each row contains a communicative act which belongs to the translation process. Let us see some examples of translation processes.
The first row shows the standard interlingual translation process. The prototext is expressed in a natural code (i.e. in a language – English for instance – that differs from artificial codes such as, say, mathematics), and its transformation into a metatext is textual (both metatext and prototext are verbal texts) and interlingual (the prototext language is different from the metatext language).
The second row shows paraphrase: the process is the same as interlingual translation, but paraphrase usually occurs within the same language, as the content of the message is simply re-expressed with other words.
Quotations may take on the form of references or allusions especially if their ‘delimiters’ (such as inverted commas) are missing: sometimes it is a very hard task for the reader to recognize them as alien texts which were originally part of another, far different text. Even quotations are forms of translation because a word or a sentence uttered by someone in a given context and co-text (→ section 3.1) is re-uttered in a new context and co-text. In this way, the original utterance is now part of a new text: it is ‘translated’. The Internet and all the other telecommunication media are exponentially increasing intertextuality in our every-day communication practice. It is extremely easy for people with access to the Internet to come into contact with the other’s words, and the most modern communicative acts are consequently intertexts, i.e. intertextual translations.
Among the different types of intersemiotic translation there are also reading and writing, all the stages of dream elaboration as both intra- and interpersonal phenomena (i.e. reporting the dream, transcribing it), and psychotherapy, consisting both in the repeated translation of affects, feelings, and drives into words, and in the decoding and recoding of such words, which finally act as a feedback for the patient.
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With a scientific explanation for the translation process as its goal, contemporary translation science does not only deal with interlingual translation. The present course on the fundamentals of translation does not aim at teaching how to translate – the translation practice represents a subsequent phase in the education of translators –, but at shading light on an often taken for granted and unconsciously practiced activity, as well as at paving the way for the interlingual translation practice.