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The Fundamentals of Translation
Introductory Course with Exemplifying Tables for B. A. Students
translations by Alice Rampinelli, Anna Paradiso, Bruno Osimo
When speaking about translation, people usually think of the trasposition of a text from a language (a natural code) to another, different from the one in which the text was originally conceived and written. As a matter of fact, that is just a peculiar subprocess within the boundless universe of translation. One of the first steps towards a more scientific and complete approach to translation as it is generally thought of consists in acknowledging all its potential aspects.
The translation process is often described with metaphors relating to space and movement. In some languages the terms referring to “source text” and “target text” are undoubtedly linked to the notion of “space”. In Italian, for instance, “testo di partenza” and “testo d’arrivo” (literally, “starting text” and “arrival text”) refer to the semantic field of runs and races. The same is true, for example, for the French “texte de départ” and “texte d’arrivée”.
To some extent, it seems that translation were a sort of transportation of something (apparently words) from one place to another. And this might be due to the fact that even the Latin word from which “translation” derives, “translatus”, comes from the verb trans-fero meaning “to bring on the opposite side of”. But even though it is true that translation has a spatial dimension, it also has a temporal and cultural one, all three made up of a number of other interrelated elements.
To avoid all the words which are too explicitly linked to the semantic field of departures and arrivals, which remind of military targets (“target text”) or which imply the misleading idea that there were no previous influences on the first text (“source text”), one may call “original” the text from which the translation process stems, and “translation” the text resulting from it. However, the word “translation” does not allow to make a distinction between the process and the outcome.
That is why the ideal terms would be “prototext” (i.e. “first text”, the original text) and “metatext” (i.e. the subsequent text, deriving from the first one). Such terms were coined by the Slovak semiotician Anton Popovič (1933-1984), who gave a substantial boost to translation studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, his ideas spread to the Western countries only after he had prematurely died.
It is also necessary to define the notion of “text”. The first definition that comes to mind when speaking of a text is a consistent group of written words with a unified structure that makes it a whole. But according to semiotics, the notion of “text” needs to be extended to nonverbal languages, such as music, figurative arts, cinema, advertisement, natural environment, street signals, and so on.
The consequences of such a widening of horizons are clear: if by “translation” we mean any process transforming a prototext into a metatext, with the text belonging to any verbal or nonverbal language or code (and by the way, prototext and metatext can even be expressed with the same code!), then the notion of “translation process” embraces a very wide range of processes, related to all possible transformations of texts.
That is why the translation process includes apparently different phenomena, such as film translation (often called “movie version”, a definition which does not stress its belonging to the sphere of translation) and intertextual translation (quotations, references, allusions, and so on). Already in 1683 the French churchman and scholar Pierre-Daniel Huet wrote in his De interpretatione:
In the previous table, each row contains a communicative act which belongs to the translation process. Let us see some examples of translation processes.
The first row shows the standard interlingual translation process. The prototext is expressed in a natural code (i.e. in a language – English for instance – that differs from artificial codes such as, say, mathematics), and its transformation into a metatext is textual (both metatext and prototext are verbal texts) and interlingual (the prototext language is different from the metatext language).
The second row shows paraphrase: the process is the same as interlingual translation, but paraphrase usually occurs within the same language, as the content of the message is simply re-expressed with other words.
Quotations may take on the form of references or allusions especially if their ‘delimiters’ (such as inverted commas) are missing: sometimes it is a very hard task for the reader to recognize them as alien texts which were originally part of another, far different text. Even quotations are forms of translation because a word or a sentence uttered by someone in a given context and co-text (→ section 3.1) is re-uttered in a new context and co-text. In this way, the original utterance is now part of a new text: it is ‘translated’. The Internet and all the other telecommunication media are exponentially increasing intertextuality in our every-day communication practice. It is extremely easy for people with access to the Internet to come into contact with the other’s words, and the most modern communicative acts are consequently intertexts, i.e. intertextual translations.
Among the different types of intersemiotic translation there are also reading and writing, all the stages of dream elaboration as both intra- and interpersonal phenomena (i.e. reporting the dream, transcribing it), and psychotherapy, consisting both in the repeated translation of affects, feelings, and drives into words, and in the decoding and recoding of such words, which finally act as a feedback for the patient.
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With a scientific explanation for the translation process as its goal, contemporary translation science does not only deal with interlingual translation. The present course on the fundamentals of translation does not aim at teaching how to translate – the translation practice represents a subsequent phase in the education of translators –, but at shading light on an often taken for granted and unconsciously practiced activity, as well as at paving the way for the interlingual translation practice.
The previously mentioned terms, notions and ideas are supported by some of the theories developed since the 1950s by linguists, semioticians, translators and scholars of several other disciplines, which shows how translation is an inter-disciplinary field. Here is a short summary of the most influential – and still valid – theories that marked the history of the translation science. For more detailed information, any book on the history of translation, including my book Storia della traduzione, will give you more insight.
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From 1959 to the 1990s translation science shifted from lexical linguistics to semiotics , gaining a new central position in the international debate after years of isolation. Up until the 1970s, the theory of translation was seen as a subfield of linguistics: translation was condescendingly regarded as an abstract phenomenon and therefore it was not studied from the point of view of translators, but from that of scientists of the language. According to the dominant idea of the time, which focused mainly on the lexical aspects of this process, translation was considered as the practice of establishing text ‘equivalents’ and ‘transporting’ them from a starting point to a given destination, i.e. from the text A to the text B. And the idea of translation as a displacement was encouraged and strengthened further by the fact that scholars used terms such as “source language” (also “departure language”) and “target language” (or even “arrival language”).
One of the most well-known representatives of the lexical approach to translation was the English researcher J. C. Catford, who defined “translation” as