If you read Monday’s article La scuola di Bom! you might have had a go at translating the Gramsci quote, which I set as ‘homework’.
A fraction of one percent of club members did, and posted their results as comments on the article. I’ll link to them in a moment, so you can see how they did. But first, an object lesson on the process of translation, which in my experience few people understand.
If you’re thinking that Language A has a direct equivalent in Language B, well sometimes, perhaps often, you’ll be correct. An orange is an orange is an orange, after all. But while the English adjective and noun are the same (an orange orange), that’s not the case in italiano (see Wordreference.com) and, if you think about it, there’s no reason why it should be.
A turkey is a bird in English, and is also used to mean something unsuccessful. It used to be the name of a country but, for understandable reasons, the government and people of that land got tired of the bird/failure association and objected. Turkey is now known officially as Türkiye, three syllables not two.
Italians commonly use ‘monkey’ (scimmia) to describe a chimpanzee, how ever many times I remind them that chimpanzees are apes while monkeys, having tails, are not. In English you can ‘monkey around’, but only the least experienced student of languages would think that the same term need necessarily exist in Italian and other languages.
Leaving aside the meaning and use of an individual word, a text is composed of many of them, along with the necessary accompanying grammar, which can also be hard to translate.
Italian, for instance, uses the present tense for just about everything, so if translating italiano>English you’ll need to decide if ‘faccio’ is ‘I do’, ‘I’m doing’, ‘I’m going to do’, ‘I’ve been doing’, or whatever.
And of course, a text’s components can interact with each other, which adds layers complexity. I just typed ‘Monkeying around with an orange‘ into Google translate, for instance, and the result was an unsatisfactory ‘Andare in giro con un’arancia‘ (Going out and about with an orange), which is really not the same. Sorry Google, close but no coconut!
E poi there are a myriad of other factors, for example context (river bank, bank your profits), connotation (a BAD rapper is probably one that’s worth listening to), register (level of formality), and so on.
Sometimes things just don’t translate, or don’t translate easily. A skilled translator will identify the problem and make the best decision they can. Mostly the client won’t even notice, but some can’t resist running the artfully, competently-translated text through Google Translate and concluding that the translator, who may have spend multiple hours on each page, has been sloppy.
I once worked for a billion-plus-dollars-of-sales-a-year Italian company, and was sometimes asked to approve the CEO’s personal assistant’s translation of important documents, which were too sensitive to be sent to a translation agency. Or they were too mean to spend the cash.
The English versions were always totally incomprehensible (really, I’m not exaggerating), which I questioned with the P.A. (my student, too), only to be told that the boss insisted she translate each word individually and not deviate in any way from the Italian original because the text was SO IMPORTANT. So important that any meaning was totally lost in translation.
Even an experienced, well-paid, pro translator, though – and lets assume, for the sake of argument, she has a near perfect knowledge of both languages, which is improbable – then faces the issue of maintaining consistency. Suppose she chooses to translate ‘monkey around’ one way, for instance, but then the term reoccurs dozens of pages later. Will she make a consistent decision the second time? There’s software that helps with this, but still.
Insomma, translation, I mean real translation, is a very skilled process, but also one in which the ‘output’ will vary from one competent professional to another. Because of the decisions they make, because of their preferences, but also because the original meaning of a word or term can sometimes only be guessed at. And the longer the text, the less likely there is to be much resemblance between one translator’s ‘product’ and another’s.
So, back to the the Gramsci quote, which I included in Monday’s article for the reasons I explained there, rather than to be clever. The ‘homework’ idea came later, as I thought club members might enjoy it.
Istruitevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la nostra intelligenza. Agitatevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutto il nostro entusiasmo. Organizzatevi, perché avremo bisogno di tutta la nostra forza.
I just copied that into Google Translate, and it came up with:
Educate yourselves, because we will need all our intelligence. Fret, because we’re going to need all our enthusiasm. Get organized, because we will need all of our strength.
Fret? That’s clearly wrong, and indeed a club member made exactly that point, that the dictionaries were unhelpful when it came to ‘agitatevi’. Literally that means ‘agitate yourselves’, but what does it ACTUALLY mean? What did Gramsci intend?
I went back to the Internet and looked for pre-existing English translations of Gramsci’s famous quote, hoping that some competent professional had done a better job than Google at some point over the last century.
The first four English translations I found were ALL DIFFERENT!
I’ll paste them below. When you read them (do it carefully, it’s interesting), you’ll notice that in the four translations, the imperative in the first sentence (‘Istruitevi’) is translated in two different ways, and the imperative in the third sentence (‘Organizzatevi’) is translated in THREE different ways! Amazing, right? An object lesson in the limitations of translation.
And the imperative in the second sentence (‘Agitatevi’)?
Look for yourself:
Educate yourselves because we will need all your intelligence. Be excited because we will need all your enthusiasm. Organise because we will need all your strength.
Educate yourself, because we will need all our intelligence. Mobilize yourself, because we will need all our enthusiasm. Get organized, because we will need all our strength.
Educate yourselves because we’ll need all your intelligence. Stir yourselves because we’ll need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we’ll need all your strength.
Educate yourselves because we’ll need all your intelligence. Agitate because we’ll need all your enthusiasm. Organize yourselves because we’ll need all your strength.
How did club members do the same task?
Some very well, others less so, but that’s totally forgivable because translation is HARD, even with decades of experience. Which is why I quit doing it years back. Also because the pay is terrible and the clients all idiots.
Read club members’ efforts here: https://onlineitalianclub.com/la-scuola-di-bom/#comments
Start at the top and work down through the comments. Pay particular attention to the three imperatives. Almost everyone got ‘Educate yourselves’, but the second and third ones presented greater problems.
And there’s the issue of whether to keep the verbs reflexive, or to translate them using different grammar.
Così. I thought it was interesting, anyway.
So on to today’s FREE Summer Series article, which is another object lesson, this time on how to lose your democracy.
Mussolini has his thugs march on Rome. The prime minister isn’t sure what to do to restore order, so goes to check with the king…
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