Monday, 28 January 2013

Back-translation


As I may have said, I’m reading Umberto Eco’s ‘The Prague Cemetery’, which I think I’m enjoying.  I think.  He must be a genius, because who else could grip you for 420 pages (and counting) with the  diary of a bigoted anti-semite, misogynistic, xenophobic fraudster who played both ends against the middle during the Unification of Italy and then went on to construct the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and so help to provoke a century of world wars?  Eh?

Anyway, that’s not what I meant to say.  On page 432, Eco puts into the mouth of a Russian secret serviceman the expression “how do you say?”  (And on the next page the same character says “I don’t know…” – imagine a shrug with spread hands here.)  And I remember that this is, of course, a translation, from the original Italian.  Eco would have written “come si dice?”  and “non so…”

The Russian certainly isn’t speaking Italian.  From the context, it’s probably French.  Eco doesn’t specify.  So, what we are looking at here is an author writing in his native Italian, imagining the thoughts of a native Russian speaker who is expressing himself in a foreign language (French) and converting the result into his written Italian – and the outcome then being translated (by the admirable Richard Dixon) into the English I read. 

 
как говорят   comment on dit? come si dice?   how do you say?

 
Anyway, that’s not what I meant to say either.  The thing is, having a smidgeon (albeit rustily diminishing) of proficiency in the language, I now find myself trying to translate the English text back into the Italian Umberto might have originally written.  It doesn’t make for a speed-read, I can tell you.

I have no idea what the point of this post might be.  Nurse says it’s time for my lie-down.

11 comments :

  1. Sounds like a lot of effort, really. Especially as it's a futile exercise unless you buy the Italian version and compare.

    Reminds me of reading Agatha Christie in French years ago, and I could see the English original through the French translation (as it were). I'm not sure if that made it a good translation or a bad one.

    ReplyDelete
  2. With the constant circular nature of this process one has to guard against disappearing up one's own back-translation

    ReplyDelete
  3. I must try this with Les Miserables. Shouldn't take long.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am impressed,having a bit of a struggle with a book by Dag Solstad and wish I knew whether it's his style or the translation which trips me up; you probably know Norwegian.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Well, that was interesting. Particularly as the very last paragraph of Les Mis is retained in the french language so I translated it to the english:
    "He sleeps. Although fate was very strange to him, he lived. He died when he was no longer his angel. The thing itself just happened, like the night is when the day goes."
    And even more interesting, Hugo included, at the end, a letter of 18 October 1862 to a M. Daelli justifying the translation of the book into the Italian language, in which he writes (Les Miserables) "is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs."

    ReplyDelete
  6. What I meant to say was that I like your circular story.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Beautiful post just there, and i’ve bookmarked this blog too…keep up the superb work. I think that that will be very good if some people use your material in situation.

    Translation Russian to English

    ReplyDelete
  8. So Damian's a translator too, eh?

    ReplyDelete
  9. That good? I may have to try again with Umberto Eco.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I didn't really like Lost in Translation but I enjoyed being lst in this post.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hmmmmm lost an o there somewhere que?

    ReplyDelete