Translating and Being Translated


by Primo Levi. Translated by Harry Thomas

Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: this made them so ambitious and powerful they began building a tower high into the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not with lightning, but by confounding their language, and so making it impossible for them to go on with their blasphemous work. A not casual parallel to this tale, which comes just before it in the text, is that of original sin and its punishment by expulsion from Eden. One can conclude that from the earliest times linguistic differences were felt as a curse.

And a curse they still are, as anyone knows who has to stay, or worse, to work, in a country in which one doesn’t know the language, or who has had to contend with learning a foreign language as an adult when the mysterious material in which meaning does its work gets more refractory. Besides, on a level more or less conscious, many regard someone who speaks another language as a foreigner by definition, the stranger, the “alien,” the different from me, and the different is a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian: that is, etymologically, a stammerer, one who doesn’t know how to speak, an almost non-human. In this way, linguistic discord tends to become racial and political discord, another of our curses.

It ought to follow that those who exercise the trade of translator or of interpreter should feel honored because they exert themselves to limit the damage of the curse of Babel. But this seldom happens, because translating is difficult, and therefore the result of the translator’s work is often unsatisfactory. A vicious circle is born: the translator is badly paid, and whoever might be or become a good translator seeks a more profitable occupation.

Translating is difficult work because the barriers between languages are larger than we commonly think. Dictionaries, especially pocket dictionaries for tourists, can be useful for basic needs, but they represent a dangerous source of illusions, which can also be said of the those multilingual electronic devices that have been available for some years now. There is seldom a true equivalence between a word in the language one is moving from and the language one is moving to. Their respective meanings may partly overlap, but they rarely coincide, even when the languages are structurally similar and historically related.

The Italian invidia carries a more specialized meaning than the French envie, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, a word that includes hatred, aversion, as witnessed by the Italian adjective inviso. It is possible that this family of words began by expressing ill-seeing, both in the sense of causing damage by watching, that is, by casting a spell, and of feeling uneasiness when watching someone we dislike, someone we “cannot see,” non possiamo vedere, as one says in Italian, but that later this family slid off in a different direction.

There do not seem to be any languages with closely defined word meanings or indeed any with broadly defined word meanings: the whole thing is always a mess. The Italian fregare has at least seven meanings; the English to get is really without meaning; Stuhl in German is chair, but also, by way of a chain of metaphorical associations that are easy to retrieve, excrement. Italian appears to be the only language that distinguishes piume (down) and penne (feathers); French, English, and German do not, and in German Feder refers to at least four different objects: a feather, down, a pen, and any kind of spring.

Other traps for translators are the so-called false friends. For remote historical reasons (which may be interesting to trace, case by case), or deriving from a single misunder-standing, some words in one language can turn up in another with completely different meanings. In German, Stipendium is scholarship, Statist is theater company, Kantine is cafeteria, Kapelle is orchestra, Konkurs is failure, Konzept is draft copy, and Konfetti is confetti.

French macarons are not macaroni but macaroons. In English, aperitif, sensible, ejaculation, apology, compass do not mean, as an Italian might think at first sight, aperitivo, sensibile, eiaculazione, apologia, and compasso. Second mate is the third officer. An engineer is not an ingegnere, but someone who deals with engines, which explains how, in the years after World War II, an aristocratic lady from southern Italy married a train conductor in the United States on the basis of a statement made in good faith but sadly misunderstood.

I am not fortunate enough to know Romanian, a language that linguistic experts love passionately, but I am told that it is full of false friends, and it is a real mine field for translators, if it is true that friptura means a roast, suflet is soul, dezmierda means to stroke, an indispensabili are underpants. Any one of these terms waits in ambush for the careless or inexperienced translator, and it is amusing to think that the trap works both ways: a German risks mistaking a statista, an Italian statesman, for an actor with a small part.

Other traps for the translator are idiomatic expressions, present in every language but specific to each. Some are easy to interpret or else so bizarre as to alert even a neophyte translator. When translating it’s raining cats and dogs into Italian, nobody, I think, would lightheartedly write that piovono cani e gatti instead of piove a dirotto, even though in some other contexts a sentence may get confused with standard speech and so be translated literally, as when, in the rendering of a novel from English, one reads in Italian, with interest, of a respectable dowager who has a skeleton in her cupboard, which is indeed possible, though unusual.

A writer who does not want to embarrass his or her translators should refrain from using idiomatic expressions, but this is hard, because all of us, when we speak and when we write, come up with these turns of phrase without thinking. There is nothing more natural for an Italian than saying siamo a posto (we are fine), fare fiasco (to fail), farsi vivo (to keep in touch), rendere un granchio (to make a mistake), non posso vederlo (I can’t stand him), and hundreds of other similar expressions. Yet they are meaningless to a foreigner, and not all of them are in bilingual dictionaries. Even asking someone’s age is an idiomatic expression: an Englishman or a German asks how you are, which sounds ridiculous to an Italian, especially if the question is addressed to a child.

Other difficulties are generated by the use, in every language, of localisms. Every Italian knows what Juventus is, and every Italian reader of newspapers is aware of what Quirinale, Farnesina, Piazza del Gesu and via delle Botteghe Oscure stand for. But the translator of an Italian text who has not been immersed in our affairs will be puzzled, and no dictionary will help. What will help the translator (if he has it) is his linguistic sensitivity—the translator’s strongest weapon. But this sensitivity cannot be taught in school any more than the ability to write verse or compose music can be taught. Linguistic sensitivity enables the translator to take on the personality of the author, to identify with the author, and alerts him when something in the text doesn’t seem right, doesn’t work, doesn’t read well, doesn’t make sense, or comes across as redundant or inconsistent. When this happens, it may be the author’s fault, but more often than not it is a warning: some of the traps described above are there, invisible but with jaws gaping.

But to be a good translator it is not enough to avoid snares. The task is more demanding: to transfer the expressive energy of the text to another language is super-human work, so much so that some well-known translations (like the translation of the Odyssey into Latin and the Bible into German) have been turning points in the history of our civilization.

However, because a text is generated by a profound interaction between the creative talent of the author and the language he uses, every translation involves inevitable loss, just like when you change currency. This loss may be great or small, depending on the translator’s skills and the nature of the original text. It is usually minimal with technical or scientific texts (but here the translator, in addition to speaking both languages, has to understand what he is translating: in other words, he needs a third expertise), but it is greatest with poetry (what is left of Dante’s e vegno in parte ove non e che luca if it becomes I come to a dark place or, in Italian, vengo in un luogo buio?)

All these “cons” can frighten and dishearten any aspiring translator, but one can throw a few “pros” into the mix. Apart from being civilized peaceful work, translating can bring unique rewards: the translator is the only one to really read the text, to read it in depth, in all its nuances, weighing and appreciating every word and every image, or perhaps detecting voids and untruths. When the translator manages to come up with or even to invent a solution for a crux, he feels godlike, without the responsibility that burdens the author. In this sense, the joys and efforts of translating compared to creative writing are like the joys and efforts of grandparents compared to those of parents.

Many authors, both ancient and modern (Catullus, Foscolo, Baudelaire, Pavese), translated texts that were congenial to them, getting joy out of it for themselves and for their readers, and often achieving the happy state of mind of someone who takes time out to devote himself to a job different from the one he does every day.

It is worth saying a few words about the situation of the author when he is translated. Being translated is neither a weekday nor a holiday job; actually, it is not a job at all, it is a semi-passive state similar to that of a patient on a surgeon’s operating table or on the psychoanalyst’s couch, though it is a state filled with strong and contradictory emotions.

When the author comes across a passage of his work translated into a language he knows, the author feels—one at a time or all at once—flattered, betrayed, ennobled, x-rayed, castrated, flattened, raped, adorned, killed. It is rare that an author remains indifferent toward a translator, however renowned or unknown, who has stuck his nose and fingers into the author’s guts: the author would like to send the translator—one at a time or all at once—the author’s heart (carefully packed), a check, a laurel wreath, or the mafia’s enforcers.

Image by Tigerweet.

“Tradurre ed essere tradotti” appeared first in Levi’s column in La Stampa, the Turin newspaper, then in the collection of Levi’s articles, L’altrui mestiere (1985).

About the Authors:

Primo Levi (1919-1987) lived for most of his life in Turin. During the Nazi occupation of Italy, he joined a partisan group in the Alps, but was soon arrested and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli and then to Auschwitz. After the war he worked as a chemist in a paint factory and wrote many books, including Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, which London’s Royal Institute voted in 2006 “the best science book ever.” He wrote poems throughout his life.

Harry Thomas is the author of Some Complicity: Poems and Translations (Un-Gyve Books), and he has edited several books, including Montale in English (Penguin UK) and Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Penguin UK). Later this year Un-Gyve will bring out The Truth of Two: Selected Translations. Thomas’s poems, stories, translations from several languages, essays and reviews have appeared in dozens of magazines, American Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, and The Threepenny Review, among them. He did a PhD at the University of Michigan, writing his dissertation on John Berryman, and has taught at many schools: Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Davidson College, Kalamazoo College, where he was poet-in-residence, and Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a prep school in Cambridge, MA. From 2001 to 2011 he was the editor-in- chief of Handsel Books, an imprint at Other Press, a subsidiary of Random House.