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Meaning’s journey between different languages can be perilous. When switching languages, meaning enters an area that is like the floodable airlock in a submarine. A translator conveys meaning through the airlock of his or her mind, allowing it to leave one medium, the source language, and enter another, the target language. The author doesn’t delve there – unless he or she has a very good knowledge of the target language. The reading public can be blissfully unaware of this passage. But translators know how crucial that airlock is. And how difficult it can be for meaning to travel through it and emerge unscathed, totally transformed and yet exactly the same in a new, alien medium.
Meaning enters the airlock of a translator’s mind in one form – the word vache, for example – and needs to come out exactly the same, yet wholly different.
Well, a cow is a cow is a vache, so the danger for meaning is a limited one.
Sometimes, this isn’t so. Fabriqué en Dinde, read the unfortunate label someone (some machine?) had ploddingly produced, translating ‘Made in Turkey’ from English into French. Unaware that in French the English word ‘Turkey’ translates into both Turquie (the country) and dinde (the bird). Incidentally, the issue may have been avoided by translating from Turkish into French directly. Translation2 can compound problems.
Going back to our vache, the issue, even in the case of translation1, is made more complicated by context. This is where meaning is skating on thin ice. Did the French author mean just any vache, merely a mother of calves, or a particular type of vache? Did he or she avoid the word génisse (heifer) because of sound or rhythm considerations, which may not apply in English, or because the animal in question had indeed mothered calves? If in the original text the vache was imaginatively, ironically described as vaillante, wouldn’t a heifer be more appropriately, alliteratively ‘hale and hearty’ than a cow? Of course, a conscientious translator can query the editor or ask the author. About context, and about meaning and its equerries, tone and register. But the world isn’t always perfect and time, in translation too, is of the essence.
Like Charon, the ferryman of Hades, a translator ferries meaning from one shore to another. For the short time the translator has meaning sitting in his or her mind’s little skiff, sailing from the source to the target shore, he or she has to decide in what fashion meaning should land on the other side: cow or heifer?
An ideal, conscientious translator is aware of the consequences of an inappropriate decision. He or she has a greater responsibility than Charon, who merely had to make sure a newly-deceased soul got across the river Styx. Whatever fate awaited the soul in Hades, it had nothing to do with the ferryman. Translators’ choices count: the meaning that will land on the other side of the journey inside their mind will have a shape chosen by them, and that shape will determine how meaning will fare.
One of the holy grails of literary translation is ‘translating the untranslatable’. Meaning encrusted with layers of idiosyncratic history. Take dialectal expressions, for example.
‘Fom din-don cadena’ is an idiomatic expression from the dialect of the Lombardy province of Brescia, in Italy. Specifically, from the northern parts of this province, the Val Trompia and Val Gobbia valleys. Linguistically it is fairly straightforward, and can be translated literally as ‘let’s make ding-dong with a chain’. The words aren’t etymologically unusual, nor hard to decipher if you have a decent knowledge of Italian or Latin: fom is ‘facciamo’ (‘we do’ or ‘let us do’, from the verb ‘fare’, to do; in other Italian dialects it becomes femo, famo, facissimu) and cadena is straight from the Latin and Italian ‘catena’ (chain). But you have to dig deep into local lore to know that the reference is to using a large vat to cook polenta, suspended over a fire by a chain to hold the weight (which can be considerable, if you are cooking for a large family) and to allow the cauldron to swing, thereby facilitating the job of the cook, who has to vigorously stir the thickening, porridge-like mix, until it reaches the right consistency.
Nothing is ultimately untranslatable, it is simply a matter of how many words you need to use to do it. But the risks for meaning multiply when instead of one pithy word you resort to a periphrasis.
Once you found your way through the linguistic maze within which the expression hides, you could simply translate ‘fom din-don cadena’ with ‘let’s make polenta’. And maybe add a footnote about polenta, or rely on the text around it to make the reader imagine the swirly, tasty, yellow polenta, delicious with molten cheese, as well as the gruelling effort involved in preparing it (these days there are electrical-powered polenta makers, akin to a small mortar mixer). And indeed this translation may be all that is required. But translators are conscious of the richness meaning has, of their responsibility to ferry it safely into its new landscape, and to convey it as creatively as the original author would wish to.
A demiurgic transformation. This is what translators do with words, to preserve meaning. This is why there is so much to love in this profession, even though it is plied somewhere between the borders of different languages and cultures. A tiny area yet one which is highly fertile. I feel sorry for Charon, having to shuttle between the barren landscapes either side of the Styx. The fields beyond the shores of a translator’s journey are – more often than not – blooming with life. It is a joy to handle the kernel of such fertility, to have an insight into the seeds of literary abundance. To hold meaning, the most precious product of our intelligence, in our hands/heads, as a midwife would do with a newborn infant, and deliver it onto another fertile meadow, for other readers to be blessed by enjoying it.