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«1. Introduction Almost every time that someone compares the translation of a text with its original, the quality of the translation is rarely awarded ...»

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What is Really Lost in Translation?

Some Observations on the Importance and the Ethics of


Stefania Gandin

1. Introduction

Almost every time that someone compares the translation of a text with

its original, the quality of the translation is rarely awarded with overall

positive comments: there is always ‘something missing’, there are always

some aspects of the original that are inevitably ‘left behind’, even when it is

recognized that the translator ‘has done a remarkable job’. Whenever someone compares a text to its translation, there is always a feeling that the ‘original text has lost many of its qualities in translation’. There are far too many examples which could evidently support this type of assertions, both in literary texts and in texts of other linguistic genres, due not only to the specific cultural and grammatical differences between the source and target languages concerned, but also, sometimes, to the inattention or inaccuracies of the translator(s) or of the automatic translation systems used to translate a text.

The following paper aims to identify the reasons behind this ‘sense of loss’, and to suggest an alternative interpretation of it, by describing some practical examples of translation and by illustrating the ethical and theoretical implications involved in the translation of any text, in order to be fully aware and to re-evaluate the complexity and the importance of this process.

2. What can be lost in translation: some examples The first example described in the following paragraphs concerns a rather interesting case of wrong translation from English into Italian appeared in a series of law proposals, draft opinions and other legal documents1 issued by the European Parliament and the European Council from 2001 onwards, regarding the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks. The AnnalSS 6, 2009. Lost in Translation. Testi e culture allo specchio 78 Stefania Gandin majority of these documents have been written originally in English and translated subsequently into several European languages, including Italian.

They can be consulted by any citizen and they are published on the eligible EU Institutions web pages, as provided for in Regulation 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents (EUR-Lex web site 2007).

Notwithstanding the importance given to the publicity of every activity of the EU institutions, the key term ‘spirit drinks’, subject matter of these legal texts, has been translated into Italian through the expression ‘bevande spiritose’ [funny drinks] (see fig.

1 and 2 below):

Figure 1. Draft Opinion of the European Parliament AM\631064EN – EnglishVersion (European Parliament web site 2007)

–  –  –

Figure 2. Draft opinion of the European Parliament AM\631064IT – Italian version (European Parliament web site 2007) Such a striking mistranslation generates inevitably a series of tragic consequences in the target text (from now onwards TT), since it creates an expression that does not make sense in the target language (from now onwards TL) and it introduces a humorous dimension in the TT which neutralizes the formal and serious register characterizing the linguistic style of legal texts.

Furthermore, this error has been subsequently repeated in many other Italian translations of documents related to the topic of spirit drinks, as shown in figures 3 and 4 below. Figure 3 contains the three most recent Italian translations issued by the EU regarding some law proposals for the

regulation on the definition, design and labelling of spirit drinks:

–  –  –

Figure 3. Search results of the most recent EU documents containing the expression ‘bevande spiritose’ (European Parliament web site 2007) Figures 4 and 5 respectively show a list of three documents of correction in Italian and an extract taken from one of this documents, still reporting

nonetheless the erroneous expression ‘bevande spiritose’:

–  –  –

Figure 4. Some documents of correction in Italian still reporting the expression ‘bevande spiritose’ (European Council web site 2007) Figure 5.

An extract taken from the Italian corrigendum PE-CONS 3631/07 COR 6 (European Council web site 2007)

–  –  –

Considering the high frequency of this error, it is plausible to believe that the responsibility of the wrong translation does not lie exclusively with the incompetence of a stubborn translator, who has constantly translated every document regarding the regulation of the same topic (an extremely unlikely situation to happen for any translator working for the EU), and constantly repeated the same mistake. The blame of this error can reasonably be given to the ‘blind competence’ of a translation machine, which considered the term spirit as an adjective and ‘correctly’ agreed its translation, in genre and number, to the term drinks, thus suggesting the corresponding Italian adjective spiritose [funny]. The machine did not recognise the sequence ‘spirit drinks’ as a whole expression and, consequently, did not suggest the correct Italian translation ‘super alcolici’ [spirit drinks]. This example should make us deeply reflect about the reliability of translation machines and, most of all, about the management of translation services and editing systems in such an important institution as the EU, but these are problems that it will be better to discuss in a different context of analysis.

The previous example represents just one of the many cases in which the translation has betrayed the original text at the level of “individual lexical choice” (Mason 1992: 28), probably the most evident (and frequent) phenomenon of mistranslation. This type of errors may often have severe repercussions on the overall meaning of a text, by destroying for example the cohesive network intended in a source text (from now onwards ST) and created through the recurrence of specific terms or lexical constructions throughout the text. Sometimes in fact, even just a single word or expression not correctly reported in translation, because of “mere carelessness” (ibid.) or to a certain degree of “manipulativeness” (ibid.) on behalf of the translator, may deviate the communicative effect intended by the author of the ST or by the commissioner of the translation. However, mistranslations may also occur at other linguistic levels, such as those involving discourse organization and thematic structure. Concerning discourse organization, translators modify very often the order of the thematic structure of a ST, thus changing the communicative perspective of the text in translation. To briefly explain the concept of thematic structure, it would be worthy to remind that every clause consists of two elements: a theme (what the clause is about), and a rheme (what the speaker/reader has to say about the theme) (Baker 1992: 121-124). The theme acts as a point of departure and provides a point of orientation for the reader (that is what the speaker is talking about) and a point of departure to create a sense of continuity within the text (coherence). The rest of the clause is called rheme AnnalSS 6, 2009. Lost in Translation. Testi e culture allo specchio What is Really Lost in Translation? 83 (what is said about the topic: rhema in Greek) and it generally consists of what the speaker or writer wants to say about the theme (Baker 1992: 121The following examples clearly illustrate the significance of the thematic progression in a text and in its potential translation. Figure 6 and 7 show respectively a page of a tourist leaflet written in English describing the main attractions of the Tower of London, and its corresponding Italian translation.

Figure 6 and Figure 7. Tourist leaflet of the Tower of London and corresponding Italian translation In some cases, we can observe that the thematic structure of the TT evidently differs from that of the ST, such as in the translation of the first section describing The Crown Jewels, in which the rhematic temporal

–  –  –

information about the topic “since the beginning of the 14th century” is put in thematic position through the sentence “Sin dagli inizi del XIV secolo”, thus giving more emphasis to the long history of the Crown Jewels. Also the description of The Medieval Palace has a different thematic structure in translation: the TT puts the sentence “Oltre a fortezza” ‘as well as fortress’2 in theme position, whereas this sentence represented part of the rheme information included in the ST phrase “was a residence for the kings and queens of England as well as being a fortress”.

A different arrangement of the thematic structure may also distort the ideology(-ies) behind a ST, such as shown in the following table containing a short extract taken from an example cited in Mason (1992), which illustrates how the English translation of a Spanish text published in the Unesco Courier3 altered the thematic structure of the ST in such a way that the final English TT downgraded the rhetorical purpose of the Spanish version,

whose scope was the promotion of the indigenous cultures and the reinterpretation of their history:

Table 1. Example of different thematic structure in ST and TT;

adapted from Mason (1992: 27-28)

–  –  –

Apart from all the other translational strategies that resulted in several and excessive lexical changes and paraphrases, this example shows that the theme of the ST “ancient and prolonged efforts” has been completely

–  –  –

modified in the TT, in which the new theme is represented by the addition of the term “Mexicans”: this element was not even explicitly reported in the ST and reference to it might be only retraced in the ST expression “búsqueda del ser y del destino mexicanos” 4, which constitutes part of the rheme section of the ST. Therefore, the new TT theme has heavily changed the point of orientation intended in the ST, putting the people in the theme position (Mason 1992: 31) and moving the emphasis away from the historical efforts made by Mexican community for preserving the memory of their history.

It could be argued that a different arrangement of the theme and the rheme of a sentence may be often due to the necessity of conforming the translation of a text with the typical syntactical structures of the TL.

Nonetheless, this type of variations can radically alter the orientation intended by the author of a ST and they can consequently distort the communicative goal of a text, as just shown in the previous example.

3. The Ethics of Translation

In the light of these considerations, it seems therefore necessary to define or redefine in a clear way the principles that should regulate the ethics of translation and the general perception of this ethics by the public.

In fact, notwithstanding the many cases in which it could be easily affirmed that something is always lost in translation, it is too easy to blame exclusively translators and the translation process per se of this type of lexical and/or semantic loss. We should investigate the causes behind this loss by identifying the principles that regulate, or better, that should regulate the process of translation, in order to re-appraise the importance of this process and promote public awareness of all the implications involved in translation, too often stigmatized as a reductive and damaging procedure of simple transposition of an original text from one language to another.

The most important translators’ associations have already adopted detailed codes of conduct stating the ethical responsibilities involved in the process of translation, such as The Translator’s Charter of the International Federation of Translators (FIT), which has an entire section describing the main duties required to a translator. The table below contains the first seven articles on the “general obligations of the translator” included in the FIT Chart. They firstly outline the role of translation as an “intellectual activity”, thus recognising the translator’s responsibilities concerning the AnnalSS 6, 2009. Lost in Translation. Testi e culture allo specchio 86 Stefania Gandin interpretation of a text (art. 2 and 3) and indicating the principle of fidelity to the original as a “moral” and, also, “legal obligation” for the translator (art.

4). The concept of fidelity is further explained through the key distinction indicated between “faithful” and “literary translation” (art. 5): a faithful translation could be defined as a translation reproducing the sense, form and functions intended (to a certain extent and with some possible exceptions5) in the ST, whereas a literal translation consists of a mere wordfor-word transposition of the ST terms into the corresponding TL linguistic elements. A literal translation would not “render exactly the idea and form” expressed in an original text and consequently would not adhere to the ethical principle of fidelity.

Table 2: Extract taken from the FIT Translator’s Charter (FIT web site 2007)


1. Translation, being an intellectual activity, the object of which is the transfer of literary, scientific and technical texts from one language into another, imposes on those who practise it specific obligations inherent in its very nature.

2. A translation shall always be made on the sole responsibility of the translator, whatever the character of the relationship of contract which binds him/her to the user.

3. The translator shall refuse to give to a text an interpretation of which he/she does not approve, or which would be contrary to the obligations of his/her profession.

4. Every translation shall be faithful and render exactly the idea and form of the original – this fidelity constituting both a moral and legal obligation for the translator.

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