Beyond Words - Language Blog

Traduttore, Traditore

The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors.

The cultural interchange spawned the Italian phrase, Traduttore, traditore: Translator, traitor. First applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that many French-language translations of Dante betrayed either the beauty or the accuracy of the work, this clever consonance plays upon the worst fears of an international society.

Is it possible to remain entirely faithful to the text one translates? And are there words, phrases, and entire ideas that simply escape translation?

The notion of translator as traitor deals with what in ethnological linguistics is called a lexical gap, or lacuna. A lacuna, from the Latin meaning a hole or ditch, refers to the absence of a word or idiomatic phrase in translation from one language to another. Puns that rely on wordplay – spoonerisms and palindromes – grammatical and syntactical variations, and objects, actions, or ideas that do not exist in a culture or language constitute several types of lacunas that pose problems to translators. How does one translate the title – and all corresponding names and events – of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Several French translations exist that capitalize on first names like Fidèle and Constant, both of which also carry with them an emotional weight – that of fidelity. But certainly fidelity and earnestness are different concepts, and even though the double-entendre is preserved, the meaning is altered.

But translation is not a new field, and over the centuries, professional translators have developed many techniques to circumvent becoming a translator-traitor. Here are just a few:

Adaptation, or “free translation”, is a process in which the translator replaces a word, phrase, or concept for one that corresponds with it in the target language.

Borrowing is the literal and direct usage of a foreign word, usually printed in italics.

Compensation is the replacement of culturally- or linguistically-untranslatable terms for approximations in the target language, created by altering grammar, syntax, or tone.

Periphrasis is the most indirect process of translation, requiring the translator to replace words or expressions for terms that exist in the target language.