Etymology and a Universal Translation

Hello everyone, after a great guest post last time out, it’s time to get back to some of my own content! While I’ve asked ‘What’s in a word?‘ before on this blog, today I thought I’d strike up the discussion again from a slightly different perspective by looking at what is contained within the most important word in our profession: translation.

Beyond (hopefully) uncovering a few interesting little tidbits about the term by looking at the roots of the word ‘translation’ in several different languages, I also want to explore the various shades of meaning that each one offers us and question whether or not there exists a universal conception of ‘translation’.

An obvious starting point for this discussion is Andrew Chesterman’s 2005 paper ‘Interpreting the Meaning of Translation’, in which he sets out to tackle the very same question and argues that etymological variations signal different approaches to and understandings of translation across the world. As such, I’d like to analyse and expand upon his paper here by looking at several examples from different languages before discussing their overall relevance to one-another.

Starting with the fairly well-known roots of the English term, the word ‘translation’ comes from the Latin translatus, the past participle of the verb transferre. Meaning ‘to carry across’, this term is itself a translation from the Classical Greek metapherein (meta- [over, across] + pherein [to carry, bear]), from which we also get the term ‘metaphor‘.

For Chesterman, a Standard Average European ‘translation’ derived from these roots is therefore ‘etymologically a metaphor, whereby something is, in some sense, something that it literally is not.’

While these Latin/Greek roots are also shared by many modern usages of the term in Romance languages, these languages still display subtle departures from the connotations contained within the English ‘translation’.

The French term traduction, Spanish traducción, Italian traduzione and others all come from the Latin transducere (trans [across] + ducere [to lead]) and therefore see us making the slight shift from ‘carrying across’ to ‘leading across‘ – something that will be discussed further below.

Elsewhere in Europe, despite the fact that many languages of the Germanic and Slavic branches simply calqued their terms for the concept of translation from the Latin/Greek model mentioned above, this process still allowed for several subtly different nuances to emerge as the word moved into new territories. The German übersetzen [literally: to set across] and Swedish översättning, for example, contain suggestions of ‘passing over’.

Beyond this pattern of calquing, meanwhile, the Dutch term vertaling is literally a ‘re-language-ing’, combining the prefix ver- [meaning a ‘change’ or ‘move’ or ‘re-‘ in English] and taal [language] while the Finnish käännös literally means ‘a turn, a turning’, noticeably deviating from the standard European trends.

For Chesterman, the Finnish term ‘highlights difference, a new direction, entering a new context; what is not highlighted is any sense of preserving an identity, maintaining sameness’.

Curiously, käännös also means ‘to steal’ in Finnish slang, adding yet another dimension to the many possible interpretations of what it means to translate.

Even further afield, the Mandarin Chinese word for ‘translate’ is or fānyi with the verb fan having the basic meaning ‘flutter’ – suggesting unstable movement and changes of state.

Finally, in an interesting example from Maurizio Bettini, Igbo – a language spoken in Nigeria – uses the words tapia and kowa to signify ‘translation’. Both words are made up of an element that means ‘narrate‘ or ‘tell‘ and another that means ‘break, decompose‘. For Bettini ‘[i]n native conception, translation thus consists in a practice that “breaks” a certain series of utterances and then “re-tells” them’.

Anyway, enough examples. According to Chesterman, these various etymologies suggest differences in the way that translation is perceived within those cultures and unmasks different approaches to the activity at hand.

Using three separate etymological sources (all included in the examples above – 1. The English term from Latin/Greek roots, 2. The German or Swedish calques and 3. The Romance language ‘leading across’) he explores the way in which the act of transferring the content to be translated (labelled X) is framed differently within each of these usages:

  1. In English: ‘the underlying cognitive schema is of carrying X across; here, the agent is conceived of as moving over together with X, like a messenger.’
  2. In German and Swedish: ‘the agent stands on the source side, putting or setting X across; X is transferred in a direction away from the agent.’
  3. In Romance languages: ‘the agent etymologically leads X across; this suggests that the agent moves in advance of X, and the direction of movement is thus towards the agent.’

Despite conceding that more work is required in the area, Chesterman finishes by hesitantly suggesting that these different paths indicate that perhaps there is no universal conception of translation:

‘At the very least, the present preliminary study illustrates how the notion of translation has been interpreted in different ways in a number of different languages. It shows that not all these interpretations give the same priority to the preservation of sameness which characterizes the words denoting “translation” in many modern Indo-European languages.’

However, while these etymologies and developing meanings are fascinating, any implication that the roots of a word delimit the extent of our understanding of its significance in any way is an obvious oversimplification.

The English notion of translation is not tied to a rudimentary idea of ‘carrying across’ but rather entails everything that translation has come to stand for in the ensuing centuries.

Though the Latin origins of the modern English word perhaps demonstrate how translation was once viewed, our current understanding encompasses nearly all of the various meanings borne out of other languages’ etymologies of translation.

In other words, no matter what path we have taken to reach our current understanding of the term, translation/traduction/übersetzen etc. cannot be reduced to historical appraisals of what they once signified. For me, translation is not about ‘carrying across’, ‘leading across’ or whatever else, but rather all of these and so much more. This is the ‘universal translation’ of today.

Indeed, in my opinion, the ‘universal translation’ is best seen when we consider the many metaphors that exist for the activity, something I’ve explored previously on this blog, as these demonstrate the multiple interpretations in action.

In English alone we see translation as transformation, building, turning, conquering, theft, cannibalism and so much more beyond the conception its etymological roots initially provided.

Ultimately, just as etymology suggests that translation is metaphor, metaphors for translation show that it is so much more than mere etymology.

Landlocked comedy and swearing with style

While many American comedies seem to have no problem making the leap onto TV screens all over the world – Family Guy or South Park being great examples of how Western ideas can be transferred successfully to other countries – it’s not always the same for their British counterparts, who often seem too tied up in their own culture to be able to cross borders.

Take for instance the classic British comedy ‘Only Fools and Horses’ (from which the previous post’s clip was taken) which, for such a hugely successful programme, has never even been aired in neighbouring France, or perhaps ‘The Royle Family’, whose depiction of typical British life is deemed too foreign for non-British audiences and which, apart from tentative releases in Holland, Finland and Portugal where a high level of understanding of British culture is assumed, has also failed to gain a wider audience.

For an example of why these comedies are so hard to translate, let’s take an example from yet another successful British comedy that has failed to provoke laughter beyond the British Isles: ‘One Foot in the Grave’. (The show was actually released in Germany as Mit einem Bein im Grab but, rather than being a simple translation, this was a complete adaptation of the programme, swapping the Meldrews for Viktor and Margret Bölkhoff.)

Listening to the intro theme (although it wouldn’t pose any real problems if the programme were to be translated as it could just be left in English) we can gain an interesting insight into one of the reasons that these programmes fail to cross over with nearly every line containing highly idiomatic uses of language relating to aging which don’t have ready equivalents in a foreign tongue: ‘too long in the tooth’, ‘OAP’, ‘clapped out’, ‘run down’ etc.

It is this close proximity to the English language and a cultural boundness caused by obscure references and linguistic games that prove too hard to break down. One extreme example of the importance of the use of language in the series can be found in the episode ‘The Dawn of Man’ where the crux of the entire story revolves around the similarity between ‘popcorn’ and ‘cop porn’!

It’s not all doom and gloom though as some series do manage to achieve success on foreign soil. One famous example is ‘Father Ted’, which has accumulated many French fans thanks to its appearance on heavily Westernised channel  ‘Jimmy’ (named after James Dean and Jimi Hendrix), which is known for helping Anglophone series make their way onto French screens, and due to the fact that the premise of Catholic priests in an isolated community is one that is relatively easily transferrable.

Father Ted S01E01 with French subtitles

Indeed, the nature of the situation comedy and the relatively few obscure cultural references which are integral to the plot allow a fairly simple subtitling process. In the first episode, only a few alterations are made for the French audience and most references are simply left unchanged e.g. ‘Toffos’ at 16:05 or ‘Top of the Pops’ at 7:20.

The only alterations of note are seen when Ted’s reference to nuclear waste as ‘the old glow in the dark’ is simplified to ‘déchets’ (waste) and when the reference to Terry Wogan and another TV presenter is creatively subtitled as ‘PPDA et Pernaut’, referring to two equally famous French presenters – Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Jean-Pierre Pernaut – and these changes are often made due to the nature of subtitling, where constraints of time and space limit opportunities for explanation or the use of long-winded phrases.

Probably the most significant challenge of translating Ted is replicating the various swear words that the programme has to offer. Interestingly, the general tendency in the French subtitles is to soften the swearing: ‘gobshite’ becomes ‘demeuré’ or ‘crétin’ (half-wit, cretin), ‘feck off’ is changed to ‘dégage’ (clear off), while ‘feck’ is rather cleverly reproduced as ‘fier’ which is not actually a swear word but plays on its similarity to ‘ficher’ (to not give a fuck about) in a similar way to ‘feck’ and ‘fuck’.

So there you have it, once all the swearing is dealt with it seems that some comedy can make the leap while others remain just too British to amuse our foreign neighbours.