Category Archives: Crimes Against Translation
Setting: An Italian literary agent contacts a translator regarding the translation of a book. The agent represents an author who wants to sell his work in the U.S. Long discussions ensue about the contract, but the agent refuses to sign any agreement that doesn’t give him and the author the power to modify the translation in any way they want before publishing it, “in case you make a mistake.” The translator isn’t having it.
Yes, the translator says. I can’t exclude the possibility that I might make a mistake. But if I did, I would obviously want to fix it. It’s in my own self-interest not to have mistakes in a translation with my name on it. Still, I’m the author of the translation, and I need to make sure that my work isn’t changed without my consent.
Agent: But what if we don’t agree with your interpretation of something?
Translator: Well, a translation is an interpretation, and reasonable people might disagree about interpretation. A difference of opinion, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that the translator has warped the meaning. But if you mean what would happen if I completely misinterpreted a sentence or missed a double entendre, then of course I would want to know that. For reasons that are obvious, I would never want to publish a translation that contained those kinds of mistakes. In the end, it’s got my name on it. But, no, I’m not inclined to grant you the right to change the translation without my permission just because you, who are not a native English speaker, would write it differently. Translations should always be revised, but by professionals who are native in the language of the translation.
Agent: Both the author and I are fluent English speakers.
Translator: Yes, but neither of you is either a native English speaker or an Italian-to-English translator. Still, if you think your English is that good, shouldn’t you probably just translate the book yourselves?
Agent: I appreciate your passionate defense of your profession, and I understand the idea that the “translator is an author,” but you have to admit that my client is more of an author than you are.
Translator: Let me ask you this. Suppose I read your client’s book, and I find that he’s been unclear or excessively verbose, or he’s botched a description, or there’s an inconsistency in the story line, or I just don’t like his interpretation of some social or historical event, and I insist that he fix it before I translate, will he do it?
Agent: I’m shocked. I’ve never encountered an attitude like this in all my years of dealing with translators.
Translator: I’m not surprised. A lot of my colleagues are incurable idiots.
Ambientazione: Un agente letterario italiano contatta un traduttore per parlare della traduzione di un libro. L’agente rappresenta l’autore, uno scrittore che vorrebbe vendere la sua opera negli Stati Uniti. Seguono lunghe trattative sull’accordo, ma l’agente rifiuta di firmare qualsiasi contratto che non conceda a lui e al suo cliente il potere di modificare la traduzione prima della pubblicazione in qualsiasi modo pare loro appropriato, “nel caso in cui Lei dovesse prendere una cantonata.” Ma il traduttore non si fa battere così facilmente.
Sì, dice il traduttore, non posso escludere la possibilità di commetere qualche errore. Ma se lo facessi, è ovvio che vorrei poter subito rimediare il problema. Anche se agisco solo per interesse, non mi conviene pubblicare una traduzione, firmata con il mio nome, che contenga degli errori. Ma essendo io l’autore della traduzione, ho bisogno di essere sicuro che la mia opera non venga modificata senza il mio permesso.
Agente: Ma cosa succede se non siamo d’accordo sulla sua interpretazione di una frase?
Traduttore: Bene, una traduzione è un’inter
pretazione, e persone di buona volontà possono anche dissentire su questioni di interpretazione. Ma differenze di opinione non necessariamente equivalgono a forzature da parte del traduttore. Se invece intende dire, cosa succederebbe se dovessi fraintendere completamente il senso di una frase o di un doppio senso, allora naturalmente ci terrei a saperlo. Per ovvi motivi, non vorrei mai pubblicare una traduzione che contenesse questo tipo di errori. Alla fine, c’è il mio nome sulla traduzione. Detto ciò, però, no, non sono comunque disposto a concedere il diritto di modificare la traduzione senza il mio permesso solo perché voi, che non siete di madrelingua inglese, l’avreste scritto in modo diverso. Sono d’accordo che le traduzioni editoriali debbano essere sempre revisionate, ma da professionisti per cui la lingua della traduzione corrisponda alla loro lingua madre.
Agente: Ma qui c’è di mezzo l’autore che conosce bene l’inglese così come me.
Traduttore: D’accordo, ma nessuno dei due è di madrelingua inglese, e non siete nemmeno traduttori dall’italiano all’inglese. D’altronde, se pensate che il vostro inglese sia di così alto livello, non avrebbe forse più senso che siate voi a tradurre direttamente il libro?
Agente: Ammiro la difesa della sua categoria, e capisco perfettamente il concetto che “il traduttore è autore,” ma si deve ammettere che il mio cliente lo è un po’ di più.
Traduttore: Le faccio una domanda. Poniamo che io legga il libro del suo cliente, e trovi che non sia stato chiaro, o che sia ecessivamente prolisso, o che abbia storpiato una descrizione, o che nella trama stessa ci sia un’ incongruenza, o semplicemente non mi aggrada il suo modo di interpretare un evento storico o una realtà sociale, e quindi insista che l’autore modifichi il testo prima che io possa accettare di tradurre il libro, lui lo farà?
Agente: Sono allibito. Mai in tutti i miei anni di trattare con traduttori ho incontrato un atteggiamento simile.
Traduttore: Non mi sorprende affatto. Spesso i miei colleghi sono inguaribili idioti.
On October 13, 2014, media outlets around the world reported a “seismic shift” in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward gays.
Three days later — at least in English — that earthquake had become a barely perceptible quiver.
It all had to do with a single word in Italian, accogliere, in the draft of the document that seemed to herald a new approach to what ex-Pope Ratzinger, back in his Cardinal days, called “the pastoral care of homosexual persons” (the Homosexualitatis problema, issued almost exactly 28 years ago, on 1 October 1986, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church).
The preliminary October 13 Relatio Post Disceptationem (post-discussion report), based on high-level Vatican meetings on family life, introduced the phrase “accogliere le persone omosessuali” (welcoming homosexual persons). Outraged conservative bishops insisted that the English translation be changed to “providing for homosexual persons,” though accogliere remains in the Italian version.
Accogliere: 1 to receive; to welcome; to greet; 2 (host) to take* in; to put* up; to house, to accommodate; 3 (accept) to accept; to agree to; 4 to accept; to answer, to attend or pay attention to; to follow; 5 to allow; (legal.) to sustain, to uphold, to allow (or to recognize, to admit) a claim; 6 to hold*; to contain; to accommodate; (in a theatre or stadium) to seat.
Nowhere does the definition of accogliere permit “provide for,” but none of the alternate meanings – accommodate, accept, recognize – were neutral enough.
As Massimo Faggioli, an Italian theologian covering the synod, tweeted Thursday, “I am Italian and that is not a translation, it is a falsification.”
Well, I’m a translator, and it is a falsification.
What’s more, it’s evidence for two apparently unrelated phenomena.
First, the prelates of the Catholic Church, much like Republicans in the U.S. Congress, are there to make sure Pope Francis doesn’t actually do anything, especially when it comes to those afflicted with the “intrinsic moral evil” of homosex.
And second, Italian translation clients, for whom English is not a first language, will always insist on their version of the translation. Even when it’s wrong.
UPDATE: Here’s an interesting postscript. According to colleagues who work with Italian, French, and Spanish, the term has not been changed in those languages. In Spanish, accogliere became acoger a; in French, accueillir. The Vatican site indicates that reports such as this one generally also appear in German and Portguese; as of 11:00 EST on 17 October, no translation had yet appeared in those languages. Is it possible the demand for a change in the translation came from English-speaking bishops? Americans or Brits?
Vatican document on outreach to gays edits out ‘welcoming’ to focus on ‘providing for’ ~ http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2014/10/16/vatican-document-on-outreach-to-glbt-edits-out-welcome-to-focus-on-providing-for
Vatican no longer “welcoming” gays in draft report translation ~ http://www.cbsnews.com/news/vatican-no-longer-welcoming-gays-in-draft-report-translation
In a video shown on Michele Santoro’s news program, Servizio Pubblico, on May 30, 2013, Beppe Grillo said that the European Union’s so-called “double parliament” (which moves parliamentarians and their entire staffs to Strasbourg, France, for a four-day plenary session each year ~ Trans.) costs EU members €400 million annually; the exact figure is actually €200 million. Then he said that one-third of the European budget is spent on translations, but the 2012 budget, to be exact, was €147 billion, and the cost of translations was €330 million (0.23%). Then he said that Italy supplies one-third of the entire budget of the European Union. To be exact, Italy is the third largest contributor, which is quite a bit different, because it means that Italy pays €14 billion into a budget of over €140 billion or, in other words, less than one-tenth. Then he said that the funds in the budget are allocated to building superstores and streets and to buying oil. Actually, one-half of European funding goes to agricultural subsidies. Then he talked about the bamboo skyscrapers supposedly designed by Renzo Piano in Australia; to be precise, there are no bamboo skyscrapers in Australia designed by Renzo Piano. It’s true that there’s a ten-story, all-timber high-rise in Melbourne (not bamboo, though, and designed by someone else) that was nonetheless quite expensive to build ($11 million Australian dollars, or about €8 million or €10 million US ~ Trans.). Then he said that France’s annual budget is €17 billion less than Italy’s; in fact, it’s €300 billion more. And so on until, on Sunday, Beppe Grillo wrote on his blog that “Italy is like a camel. There’s no more water in its hump.” But camels, to be exact, don’t have water in their humps; they have fat. They store water in their bodies and in their blood. And, in any case, the image Grillo chose to accompany his blog was a photograph of a dromedary.
If there’s one thing translators are good at, it’s words. Sometimes, though, we’re too good for our own good.
The economic crises, the vexed question of rates, debates over whether or how translators and interpreters should organize have led to a literal tsunami of opinions.
But they have also given rise to what I call the “Translation Borg”: the blogger who busily surveys what others are doing in the field and, from a self-conferred position of authority and a pretense of objectivity, undertakes to tell you why it’s all wrong and will never work. (And he does it for your own good, mind you.)
Resistance, in other words, is futile.
As we confront the day-to-day difficulties of earning a living as translators, we need analysis of our efforts and of the marketplace, we need broader points of view, and we can certainly learn from the experience of others.
What we don’t need are self-appointed gurus who attempt to defraud their readers with claims of “objectivity,” “impartiality,” or “experience.” We don’t need “experts” who haven’t translated in years (if they ever did) and who’ve never actually tried to make ends meet in today’s market.
I’d be willing to bet Translation Borg bloggers exist in just about every language, though the blogs I personally follow tend to be limited to English and Italian. Either because of that limitation—or maybe because it’s an accurate reflection of a genuine social phenomenon—I seem to find a disproportionate number of Translation Borg writing in Italian.
In his latest book, Il Caratteraccio: Come (Non) Si Diventa Italiani (“The Petulant Italian: How (Not) to Become One”), the Italian journalist, U.S. correspondent, and online editor of La Repubblica, Vittorio Zucconi, attempts an analysis of the modern Italian social malaise. He sums it up in a few words: “The Italian character may be defined this way: ‘I disagree, therefore I am.’”
I don’t know if Zucconi is right about Italians as a whole, but he scores a bullseye when it comes to Italian translation bloggers.
On the site of one prolific blogger, for example, this typically acid comment recently appeared:
[I wonder about] the gasbags who open their mouths just to hear themselves talk, take up their pen just to use up the ink, or bang away at their keyboards just to make sure they’re still working. If that shade of green one perceives in their words isn’t just the color of spite and envy, they’ll surely appreciate this new research, ‘The Italian Language Services Market,’ published by Common Sense Advisory. Let’s see whether they read it or whether, as in the fable of the ‘Fox and the Grapes,’ their only comment will be that it costs too much.
This same blogger later confirmed, in a private message, that he hadn’t actually read the report either. The reason: because the download is available only to annual subscribers to the Common Sense Advisory site and a subscription to the service … wait for it … costs too much. (Calling it a “research report,” by the way, is a bit much: it’s a four-page article).
That’s the kind of hypocrisy we’re dealing with.
Elsewhere we read:
Rather than talking nonsense about translation rates, especially other people’s, and tossing advice around right and left, I’d like to see the actual invoices of some of these know-it-alls. What’s more, I wish they would put an end, once and for all, to the absurd pretense of educating clients and their colleagues. Clients certainly have no desire to be educated by their service providers, and translators, if they have the humility it would take to ask, know where to go for help if they want it.
Such as straight to the blog writer, one supposes, whose personal humility oozes from every post.
Italian has a number of great phrases to describe approaches like this one (which, if we remember the old canard about Eskimos and fifty words for snow, suggests that Zucconi may be on to something).
One of my favorites is “bastian contrario.” The origin of the expression is slightly mysterious, but its use in modern Italian is clear: Whatever direction you’re going in, the bastian contrario is going in the other, just for the sake of being able to brag about how “independent” he is. If you ask him, the bastian contrario won’t hesitate to tell you (and tell you and tell you) that he’s an iconoclast and a free-thinker and a nonconformist, but mostly what he is, is a crank, a fault-finder, and a naysayer.
Bastian contrario is sometimes translated into English as “devil’s advocate,” but it’s a translation that doesn’t quite hit the mark: the bastian contrario doesn’t advocate for anything other than his own ego.
Meanwhile, you don’t have to be Freud to understand the bastian contrario blogger’s psychology: he’s defeated, frustrated, dissatisfied, and cynical. What’s harder to understand is why he would dedicate his life to disempowering others.
And that’s where another Italian coinage becomes useful: “benaltrismo.” However you’ve chosen to respond to a problem, whatever action you’re taking, the benaltrista wants you to know that you’ve got it all wrong. The “real” problem is “ben altro” – something else entirely.
But it isn’t as though the benaltrista has an alternative solution. Not at all. The benaltrista is allergic to solutions. He just wants to keep on demonstrating what a genius he is for having understood the “real” issues better than you. And what are the real issues? The benaltrista is always vague on this point. After all, if he made the mistake of offering specific proposals, the next benaltrista to come along would just start picking holes in them.
And so: Does the benaltrista writer of the post above have any idea what should be done, given that he finds the idea of “educating clients” so “absurd”? No, he doesn’t. Does he take any position at all on the problem of constantly falling rates? For that matter, does he take any position on the issue that prompted him to blog in the first place – lively online criticism of a translation agency owner who was recently invited to lecture on the subject of “How to Earn a Living from Your Work As a Translator” despite the fact that his own low-balling of translators is both well-known and well-documented?
No, because it’s easier to launch an ad hominem attack: people who criticize low rates should make their invoices public. (It’s a red herring worthy of the Tea Party–and perhaps he’d like to examine our birth certificates as well. If we’re earning badly, it’s precisely because clients and agencies pay badly. If we’re earning well, it means that resistance to low-rate practices is possible. But what does either have to do with our right to point out hypocrisy and falsehood when we encounter it?)
The problem with the posts like the ones I’ve mentioned here—and they’re typical in both Italian and English—is that the only possible reaction to them is inaction, immobility, paralysis.
Translation Borg bloggers don’t want you to do anything, change anything, learn anything. All they want is for you to know that whatever you’re doing is pointless. (Talking of people who “bang away at their keyboards just to make sure they’re still working.”)
There is no hope, they tell you. You can’t grasp the situation fully (only they possess The Special Teachings and know The Secret Handshake, but they’re sure not going to share them with the likes of you—at least not for free). You haven’t put in enough years; you aren’t yet teaching at Great Big U. (although, at least in Italy, questions about nepotism, favoritism, and competence ought to, as they say, “rise spontaneous” whenever you encounter someone who holds a permanent professorship in a university); you don’t represent the Association of Supremely Sublime Holders of Language Expertise and Savvy.
I’m reminded of the old story about crab fishing. Once you’ve got them all in a bucket, you never have to worry about any of them running away. The minute one crab tries to climb out, the others instantly latch hold of him with their claws and their combined weight drags him back down.
Unfortunately, a lot of translation blogging is like that. If it were only hot air, it could just be ignored. But Translation Borg actually succeed in stealing initiative and energy from translators who propose new ideas, who are looking for a better way. They suck it all down into the black hole of the “collective” (which consists of them and their cronies, those happy few who have “arrived”). No light ever escapes from that gravitational force.
In another context, they’d be called “reactionaries,” but the word “action” in the middle might mislead you. Action is the last thing on their minds.
When you read translation blogs, especially those of translators who claim to have “long experience in the field” or who seem to have impressive credentials, you need only ask yourself: At the end, do I feel more or less powerful? Am I more or less frustrated? Am I more or less convinced that things can get better for me in the profession I’ve chosen?
If, after reading, you feel less hopeful and more discouraged, step away from the bucket and leave the crabs to themselves. You can rest assured, meanwhile, that raising issues like these with benaltrista bloggers is useless. Their problems are truly ben altro.