Anton Popovič. La scienza della traduzione. Aspetti metodologici. La comunicazione traduttiva. Review by Ubaldo Stecconi

Anton Popovič. La scienza della traduzione. Aspetti metodologici. La
comunicazione traduttiva, trs. Bruno Osimo and Daniela Laudani.
Milano: Editore Ulrico Hoepli, 2006. xx + 194 pp. ISBN 88-203-3511-5.
19 €. [Original: Teória umeleckého prekladu. Bratislava: Tatran, 1975.]
Reviewed by Ubaldo Stecconi (Brussels)

On May 1, 2004 ten new countries joined the EU and the division of the continent
into Western and Eastern blocs symbolically came to an end. According to many
commentators, the division had always been artificial: Europeans on opposite
sides had always shared more than their governments did. This is how Prof. Peter
Liba — who helped me put Anton Popovič’s work in its proper historical context
— put it: “We [under the totalitarian regime, behind the Iron Curtain] have never
stopped being in Europe and develop its cultural potential” (Liba 2006). From
a Western European viewpoint, this has been repeatedly confirmed as the institutional,
cultural, and intellectual heritage of the East has become progressively
familiar. The Italian edition of Teória umeleckého prekladu (1975) brings this realisation
to Translation Studies.
Anton Popovič (1933–1984) was not exactly unknown. A good academic
manager and organiser, his international links included Poland, Hungary, the
Netherlands, Canada, and the US. From his Cabinet of literary communication
at the University of Nitra, he established contacts with translation scholars (cf.
Holmes, de Haan and Popovič 1970; Popovič 1970) and the quality of his work
was recognised in Western circles (cf. Dimić 1984; Beylard-Ozeroff, Králová and
Moser-Mercer, eds. 1998; Tötösy de Zepetnek 1995; Zlateva 2000; Gentzler 2001).
However, according to Mr Osimo, who translated the text reviewed here with
Daniela Laudani, no extended part of his work has been available in the academic
lingua francas of the West (cf. pp. x–xi).1 Unfortunately, Italian is not exactly the
first choice as a lingua franca either. Teória umeleckého prekladu should appear in
more widely used languages, and I hope the reasons will be clear to you by the end
of this review.
Why did an interest in translated communication arise in Nitra in the late 1960s?
Prof. Liba informs us that the Cabinet of Literary Communication was born as
an interdisciplinary project of František Miko, a linguist, Popovič, a literary comparatist,
and other teachers. A covert disagreement with Marxist approaches to literature
lay in the background, but the project could push through because Nitra’s
marginal position eluded political monitoring. Secondly, those scholars felt they
had to critically come to terms with Western theories of literature. The initial interest
was thus literary studies, particularly Miko’s theory of style, which Popovič
74 Book reviews
— whose main interest had always been translation theory — later applied to literary
La scienza della traduzione appears 31 years after the Slovak original and 26
after the 1980 translation into Russian, on which it is also based. In spite of this,
many positions and insights still read fresh and provocative. How can it be that the
book does not show its age? I can think of two reasons: either Popovič was a Leonardo-like
genius way ahead of his time, or Translation Studies has been running
out of steam lately. This seems the conclusion Palma Zlateva reached at the end of
her comprehensive overview of the Russian edition of the work:
It is unfortunate that Popovič left us so early, before he could witness both the
influence of his ideas and our failure to overcome during these years some of the
pitfalls which he had been warning us in his writings. (Zlateva 2000: 115)
I believe she has a point. Already in the introduction, Popovič laments the lack of
a solid theoretical background in translation circles, especially practitioners (p.
xxvii). As we know, this is still the case. His solution is as follows: a theory of translation
can be developed on the basis of a more general semiotic theory of communication
and it should strive to remain an open interdisciplinary field. However,
this implies the danger that Translation Studies loses its individual character:
To prevent that researchers from other disciplines deny the science of translation
the status of an independent discipline, I have drawn a map of the relationships
between the science of translation, linguistics and comparative literature. (pp. xxviii–xxix)
The map appears at pages 12–13 and makes an interesting read if compared with
the Toury-Holmes map (e.g. in Toury 1995: 10) Western scholars are more familiar
Popovič was bold and optimistic, but it seems to me that we have not moved
a lot forward since. Perhaps Translation Studies has chosen the wrong time to
fight for the independence of its province within the larger confederation of the
human sciences. Today’s research — both in the human and the natural sciences
— is no longer structured around disciplinary boundaries but around problems,
regardless of where their solutions may come from. At any rate, it is interesting
to note the close association between a solid theory for translation and a precise
technical terminology for its operational concepts. This attention to a ‘scientific’
terminology is demonstrated by a 30-page glossary that closes the book. The glossary
is explicitly presented as “a theoretical microsystem” (p. 147) and most of the
entries it includes read like an encyclopedia. Theory, specialist terminology, and
independence are three corners of one and the same figure for Popovič: “although
the science of translation has an interdisciplinary outlook, there exists a specific
Book reviews 75
domain for it which does not automatically borrow the terminology of the other
disciplines” (p. 5).
According to Prof. Liba, Popovič translated little and did not have a large firsthand
experience of literary translation. In spite of this, I found his remarks on the
practical act of translating insightful and to the point. Starting from the recognition
that any translation is a secondary model, Popovič writes that “Translating …
is a consequence of the clash between primary and secondary communication” (p.
47). This is a theoretical position that sets the stage for a dynamic and dialectical
view of translating.
One can find a first reflection of this view already in the terms proposed for
what we sometime call source and target texts. Popovič defines them prototext and
metatext, thus highlighting their distinct and convergent functions for the act of
translating. The prototext is defined as “Subject of intertextual continuity. Original
text, primary model which is the basis for second-degree textual operations” (p.
166). This definition suggests an ontological primacy for the act of translating, of
which the prototext is nothing more than a ‘basis’. Consistently, the metatext is
defined as a “Model of the prototext” which is the product of “a logopoietic activity
carried out by the author of the metatext” (p. 159). What are the crucial elements
around which this logopoietic activity revolves? Recalling the literary context in
which Popovič operated, it is not surprising that style comes first, with content and
expression distant seconds. “The concept of translational correspondence must be
defined above all at the stylistic level; content and language elements give equally
important functional contributions to it” (p. 76). At this point it should be obvious
that the text is the only workable unit of translation: “Ideally a translation that
strives to build stylistic similarities must be carried out at textual level” (p. 68).
This outlook has interesting consequences on the notion of equivalence. “The
art of translation is the exact reproduction of the prototext as a whole” (p. 82). This
statement should not be mistaken as endorsing such ideas as perfect equivalence
or identity. Popovič forcefully rejects the notion of total equivalence; in fact, his
core theoretical argument is the alternative and more realistic notion of change or
shift. Translators change the prototext precisely in order to convey it as exactly as
possible, “to possess it in its totality” (ibid.). Both absolute freedom and absolute
faithfulness are self-contradictory conceptions; in fact, translating can actually be
defined in terms of stylistic, linguistic or semantic shifts. There can be no trade-off
between faithfulness and freedom; rather, they are dialectically related.
The optimal situation is functional stylistic change; i.e. change whose goal is
the expression of the prototext’s character in a way that responds to the conditions
of the other system (p. 83). This state of affairs gives translators their fair share of
semiotic responsibility. Popovič has no doubt that translating involves creativity:
76 Book reviews
Every translator interprets the prototext and develops its creative potential.
(p. 126)
A translator is both more and less than a writer. Less, because his or her art is ‘secondary’.
More, because … he or she has to mix analytical thinking with creative
abilities; create according to fixed rules; and introduce the prototext into a new
context. (p. 38)
Because creativity means making choices, this complex translational task can be
neatly expressed as follows: “Translators choose within choices already made” (p.
39). As we know well, not everyone is convinced that translating involves creativity
yet. Those who deny translators’ creative efforts presuppose that translating is a
simple recording of the original; those who recognise them presuppose that translating
happens in the mind of the translator. Popovič would certainly prefer the
latter position as is evidenced by his rejection of the conception of the copy and of
machine translation: “Machine translation … is devoid of style; to use a figure, it
is ‘dehydrated’. Since it is not a text, automatic translation cannot even be regarded
as a translation in the first place” (p. 69).
Popovič refuses to accept that the copy, the perfect matching of all levels of expression
between prototext and metatext, is a desirable — if unreachable — limit
translators should tend to. In fact, the copy is the opposite of translation; its very
negation. It is not the first time a case needs to be made along these lines for the independence
of a form of semiotic work. A debate in early 16th century Italy compared
the expressive powers of painting to poetry and sculpture. Then too people wondered
whether painting originated in the imagination or was a mere recording of
something else. Today, we have no doubt that painters are creative artists, but before
the year 1500 they were regarded more or less as craftsmen. Masters such as Bellini,
Giorgione and Titian, active in Venice in the first three decades of the century, helped
change the public perception of painters. When will this happen to translators? Arguments
like those included in La scienza della traduzione can certainly bring that
time closer, and this is another reason why — I repeat — I hope this book will soon
appear in a language that is more familiar to the community of scholars.
. All references to La Scienza della traduzione include page numbers only; all translations into
English are mine.
Book reviews 77
Beylard-Ozeroff, Ann, Jana Králová and Barbara Moser-Mercer, eds. 1998. Translators’ strategies
and creativity: Selected papers from the 9th International Conference on Translation and Interpreting,
Prague, September 1995 — In honor of Jiří Levý and Anton Popovič. AmsterdamPhiladelphia:
John Benjamins. [Benjamins Translation Library, 27.]
Dimić, Milan V. 1984. “Anton Popovič in Memoriam”. Canadian review of comparative literature
/ Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée. 11:2. 350.
Gentzler, Edwin. 2001. Contemporary translation theories (2nd edition). Clevedon: Multilingual
Holmes, James S, Frans de Haan and Anton Popovič, eds. 1970. The nature of translation: Essays
on the theory and practice of literary translation. The Hague: Mouton.
Liba, Peter. 2006. Personal communication. 5 August.
Popovič, Anton. 1976. Dictionary for the analysis of literary translation. Edmonton: Department
of Comparative Literature, The University of Alberta.
Popovič, Anton. 1970. “The concept of ‘shift of expression’ in translation analysis”. Holmes et al.
1970. 78–90.
Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond. Amsterdam-Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. 1995. “Towards a taxonomy for the study of translation”. Meta 40:3.
421–444. [Reworked version of Popovič 1976.]
Zlateva, Palma. 2000. “A wheel we have been reinventing. Review of Anton Popovic’s Problemy khudozhestvennogo
perevoda [Problems of Literary Translation]”. The translator 6:1. 109–116.
Reviewer’s address
European Commission
MADO 10/84

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