“Traduttore, traditore”- ‘The translator is a traitor’

Jessica – Year 13 Student

Editor’s Note: This essay forms part of a collection of student works published in the 2020 edition of Salutaris, the GSAL Sixth Form academic journal. This is the first time that this piece of work has been published online. CPD

‘All translation is a compromise – the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic’. The immense number of living languages in the world, estimated at about 6000, each with their own dialects, idioms and expressions, creates a richness and uniqueness to different nationalities. Translation is a huge part of language and can have profound and lasting effects on the receiving language. The most notable example of this, in my opinion, is Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Additionally, one of the joys of language is the ability to manipulate words and phrases to create poetry or puns. However, these aspects in themselves become barriers to communication, as they are almost completely impossible to translate. By attempting to convey the precise meaning of a text, there is a risk that the true essence of it is lost, hereby, fulfilling the old Italian adage “Traduttore, traditore” (The translator is a traitor.) 

Ironically, this saying is itself a pun as it consists of two very similar words (differing just by a vowel and a double letter) with very different meanings. Indeed, they sound very alike too! Unfortunately, this nuance is lost when the phrase is translated into English, thereby enabling it to achieve its own prophecy. In an ideal world, the existence of a translator would not be apparent, as to be a perfect translator they have to be ‘render(ed) invisible.’ Given all the factors which need to be taken into account though, this is a very difficult result to achieve. My research has found many examples of when true translation is tricky and many instances when difficulties in translation have created hazards in different areas.

Translation can be particularly hazardous in an area such as politics, where even a slight misinterpretation of a word or phrase can potentially lead to a speech giving completely the wrong message. In the world of politics, this could absolutely ruin foreign relations, or in extreme circumstances, lead to war. Trusting the translator in properly translating something is excruciatingly difficult in these cases; in areas such as war and diplomacy trust is both crucial and difficult to grant. Politicians who do not know the language of their ‘enemies’ or partners have to depend completely on those who do (the translator) and this dependency causes a lot of fear. Unfortunately, this fear is not helped by the fact that politicians tend to be big fans of using rhetorical language, which in itself is often difficult for even native speakers to understand. This is extremely prevalent in the case of Donald Trump. His liking for malapropisms and vague terminology makes for a very confusing job for translators in every language. In a recent article in “The Guardian” entitled “Trump in translation: president’s mangled language stumps interpreters”, a translator was quoted as saying “We try to grasp the context, but it’s so incoherent.” This means that translators often have to change what Trump has said when translating into different languages in order to either make his words more concise or because there is not actually an equivalent word in the other language. Trump’s use of the word “nut job” when setting out his justification for firing FBI director James Comey was a particularly tricky one for translators! From a cultural perspective, translating some of Trump’s “riskier” comments can be potentially hazardous because some of what he might pass off as ‘lewd banter’ can sound a lot more racist or sexist when translated into an alternative language as there is not a directly suitable word. By even slightly changing the meaning of comments when translating, the translator instantaneously becomes a traitor (in line with the saying ‘Traduttore, traditore’), despite doing their best job, as they have altered the true essence of what they have translated in order to make it more acceptable in their target language.

Errors in translation in relation to politics can however also have far greater consequences. Take, for example, when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech at the height of the Cold War in 1956 and said “Мы вас похороним” which literally translates into English, as ‘We will bury you.’ This was taken by the United States as a serious threat to bury the US with a nuclear attack. The threat alone escalated the already serious tension between the US and Russia. However, by directly translating what was said, the real sense of the Russian phrase had been lost and it was actually intended to mean something more like: ‘We will outlast you.’ These two translations have very different meanings, showing how hazardous translation can actually be if it is not done correctly and how the possibility of mistranslation leading to war and conflict can arise.

Problems with translation in relation to film and literature are far less risky, but can still carry many consequences, principally the loss of humour and idiomatic phrases. Virginia Woolf agreed with this, and once stated that ‘Humour is the first gift to perish in a foreign language.’ Puns are notoriously hard to translate so this is not a surprise but it unfortunately leads to translated works of literature bearing many differences to their original. The use of idiomatic language in literature also presents great difficulties. I can think of many typically British phrases that cannot be directly translated into any language, one example being ‘Bob’s your uncle.’ Arguably, out of all different types of literature, poetry is the hardest to translate. The very essence of poetry is constructed using the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language and includes much metaphorical language. These nuances are what compose the basis of the poem and by eradicating this you completely change the poet’s vision. As Voltaire said: ‘It is impossible to translate poetry. Can you translate music?’ I completely agree with the idea that poetry bears similarities to music as they both share the key features of rhythm, expression and creativity, and many musicians take inspiration from famous poems. It also gives an indication of the issues associated with translating poetry, which tends to ruin the structure, the rhyming pattern and the use of metaphorical expressions.  

Film, like literature, is challenging to translate due to the use of idioms and possible vague language. However, for me, the reason translation in film is so traitorous is not due to these issues, but to the actual subtitles or use of dubbing itself. In my opinion, these methods of translating foreign-language films completely detract from the experience of watching the artistic motion picture. Both options are equally appalling: with subtitles you are so busy reading them that you lose track of the on-screen action, with dubbing the viewer is annoyed by the out of time synchronisation of the actors’ lips moving and the audio you can hear. In this area it is not generally the translation itself that is precarious, rather that the method of conveying the translation is an irritant.

I have also come across examples where translation can be hazardous in the world of advertising. Numerous global companies have had difficulties translating their well-known, creative taglines into other languages. One example of a costly mistake happened to the UK-based bank, HSBC. In 2009, the bank had to launch a $10 million rebranding campaign after their catchphrase ‘Assume Nothing’ was translated as ‘Do Nothing’ in certain countries. Clearly, this was an extremely detrimental mistake not only because of the huge cost needed to rectify the issue, but also because the translated slogan is not an ideal one for a company wanting people to use their services. Translation difficulties must be very frustrating for large, global companies who want a cohesive advertising campaign. At the very least, companies are forced to adapt the meaning of the words and phrases used in their advertising. The German confectionery company, Haribo, established as its strapline “Haribo macht Kinder froh, und Erwachsene ebenso” (Haribo makes children happy and adults as well), with “froh” and “ebenso” creating a rhythmic quality to make the phrase memorable. To maintain a rhyme for the UK market, the strapline had to be altered slightly to “Kids and grown-ups love it so – the happy world of Haribo”. Although this is a fairly minor example of where ‘the original is unfaithful to the translation’, it is indicative of the lengths that translators have to go to in advertising in an attempt to convey a company’s message. Whether this then makes them a traitor is a matter of opinion.

In day-to-day life, the limits of translation can also be seen; there are many words in different languages that either have no viable translation or the word has a cultural component to it that cannot easily be conveyed. A Spanish word which falls into that category is one that many English people know and use but which  does not have a simple translation – ‘siesta.’ Siesta is usually translated into English as ‘nap’; however, this does not carry quite the same cultural connotations as the word ‘siesta.’ A ‘siesta’ is a particular kind of nap which makes sense in countries where the summer afternoons are unbearably hot, but as this is rarely the case in England we do not have an equivalent word in the English language. Words such as this then end up being appropriated into our everyday vocabulary. There are also many Nordic words that are rendered untranslatable. One of these is the Danish word ‘hygge’, used to describe something cosy and comfortable. However, it is more a state of mind than an actual experience making it impossible to translate. The attempt to translate these types of words makes the translator become a traitor to the original, as you can never fully encapsulate the true essence of what the word is describing. Additionally, translation is further complicated when languages have just one word to describe something to which others have to use many words to achieve the same meaning. Spanish, German and French all have a word for the specific pain you feel as the result of a workout. Specifically in Spanish you can say “tengo agujetas” to mean ‘my body hurts because I worked out recently.’ Clearly you can see that in English this phrase is far less concise and succinct than the Spanish counterpart. This can lead to inferior translating where much of the essence of the original is lost.

The potential hazards of translation have soared with the internet and the widespread existence of online translators, which means that anyone can now translate anything at the click of a button. Given all the drawbacks of translation which are outlined above, imagine the scope for misinterpretation and misunderstanding which can arise when just a computer rather than a human being is responsible for the translation! However, although internet translators are hazardous, I believe that human translators are much more dangerous. Usually, when online translators make mistakes you will quickly recognize this if you know the language. On the other hand, human translators ‘produce characteristically fluent and meaningful output’ making it extremely difficult to realise the faults.

In my opinion, it is inevitable that in the majority of circumstances the translator is a traitor to the original however talented a translator he or she may be. To convey both the literal meaning of what is said or written, as well as the nuances behind it and the expression with which it is said must be a challenging task, particularly in relation to the spoken word where translators literally have to think on their feet. On the face of it, being a translator would appear to be an unenviable profession since they are ‘render(ed) invisible’, particularly if they are very good at their job. In fact, a search online of ‘renowned translators’ provides a list of the top five translators of all time, all of whom are dead and only one of which lived during this century! Nevertheless, according to the ATA (American Translators Association), the number of people employed in the interpretation and translation industry doubled between 2010 and 2017. It appears that the number of ‘traitors’ amongst us is not set to diminish any time soon. 

Jessica 134648

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