The Distance: Translating between Texts and Territories

Ivo Meldolesi, Vecchiette abruzzesi parlano per la prima volta al telefono, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” - Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).
Ivo Meldolesi, Old lady from Abruzzo speaking on the phone for the first time, ca. 1950 (“Gazzetta del Popolo” – Archivio Fotografico, cart. 76, busta 5212).

The recent essays on canon formation and literary aesthetics raise a vital question about the tension between faithful and successful translations. I see these essays as a twofold project: not only are they concerned with practices of translation and processes of canon formation on the “target” side, but they also have to account for the same processes in the context of the original production. It is within this field of opposite forces that the work of translation takes place, constantly pulling the text in opposite directions, sometimes demanding painful choices.

We can see the practice of translation as an attempt to draw closer different or competing literary aesthetics. From the translator’s point of view, these often work against one other: what seems “good” in Arabic might not be perceived as such in English, and vice-versa. Thinking about the original and the target literary landscape as competing forces is one possible angle from which to approach the questions of canon formation and of its translatability.

In the development of the field of translation studies, the issue of competing aesthetics has led, in recent years, to the increasingly forceful call for a more central role of the translator. This critical position aims at challenging the notion of the “translator’s invisibility” that was dominant until the last decades of the 20th century. The most resonant theorization of this change of direction is probably to be found in the work of Lawrence Venuti. In The Translator’s Invisibility, published in 1995, Venuti forcefully argues for the translator to be fully aware of his impact on the text. A “transparent” translation, one that produces a text that “does not seem to be translated” or that does not read as a translation, is a myth. The translator should not forget his decisive role in “domesticating” the text for his readership.

In my own amateur translations, I intimately fight with Venuti’s conclusions, and in every new endeavor I hope to find proof of the idea that the power of the translator is his or her ability to simply disappear. To be an excellent translator, one has to aspire to be omnisciently invisible. Each and every time I translate between my native Italian, French, and English, however, this assumption is disproven, albeit never fully. I am, then, a conflicted translator, torn between conveying what I know of a story before it travels across languages and borders, and what I know it will have to become in order to land successfully in its new country, its new language. In other words, however thoroughly aware the translator is of the two literary contexts with which he is engaging, their subtle differences in language and traditions, he or she will invariably alter the weight, taste and touch of the original work.

What it is important to stress here is that this notion of movement is already inscribed in the etymology of the word “translation”. The Latin root, trans-latio, could be rendered literally as “movement across” or, perhaps better, “from a point to another.” It is in this distance — temporal as well as physical — between origin and destination, in the interstices and discrepancies of language, that the translator operates. The bigger this distance, the more challenging the task. Let’s say, for instance, that I am trying to translate Amiri Baraka’s experimental autobiographical novel The System of Dante’s Hell into Italian. The 1965 novel, written in what Baraka himself calls “association complexes,” aims at reproducing the young protagonist’s early life in Newark’s “middle-class ghettos” through a series of pictures “of sound and image” where people and places of his childhood are charted on a loose model of Dante’s Inferno.

For our hypothetical English-to-Italian translator, the familiarity of the structure (Dante is mandatory in most Italian high-school curricula) cannot conceal the gap existing between sensibilities and experiences. The Black American experience had no counterpart in 1960s Italy. Moreover, it comes with its own set of references: The System of Dante’s Hell will not have the same impact in a country or culture where there is no baseball, no Bebop and no American South. Hence, the translator will have to thicken and expand the original work by way of footnotes, glossary, historical compendia and, on top of all, a very different syntax, probably heavier than Baraka’s “fast narrative,” certainly different.

The same is true in the case of attempting to translate a dialect into a culture whose linguistic landscape does not include dialects as such. America, for instance. The same hypothetical translator, this time attempting to translate a conversation between Luisa, a 40-year-old Italian speaker from Bologna and her old mother who only speaks Bolognese, will first look through his “Dictionary of American Slangs”, then into his “Dictionary of American Regionalisms”, and finally resolve to reluctantly translate the conversation as if both speakers used standard Italian. Or give up that job.

As a translator, to resolve the inescapable conflict concerning how much can be conveyed and how, I have chosen to ensure the safe landing of the work into its target culture. To do so, I have had to forget at least in part the feelings that accompanied the departure, and leave behind some of the defining traits of the original work that could not be moved without being unacceptably altered. This initial separation of the work from parts of its universe will be the underlying motive of any journey into and through translation.

About Tommaso Manfredini

Tommaso Manfredini is a doctoral student in the Department of French and ICLS at Columbia. He is interested in francophone literature, migration movements, contemporary poetry and oral history. He grew up in Italy and studied there, in France and in Boston before coming to New York.