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.

What’s in a word? La rentrée in translation

If there’s one word that stands out for me as a French translator when September comes around, it has to be la rentrée.  Literally meaning the return, there’s a surprising amount of depth hidden in this little word and several reasons for its current relevance.

At this time of year, the French term la rentrée is basically used to mark the end of the summer holidays. More importantly, however, it marks the period when the rhythm of day-to-day life in France resumes after a few months of rest and recuperation over the summer.

Indeed, beyond indicating the start of the new school year and people returning to work from their summer holidays, la rentrée also sees the government getting back to business, the much-anticipated literary season getting underway, clothing shops putting new collections in the shop windows and all the restaurants, bars and other shops that were closed for August finally reopening their doors in a dramatic renaissance that comes close to representing a second opportunity to shout ‘Happy New Year’.

While we experience a vaguely similar phenomenon in England with schools being closed and workers in general taking holidays over the summer months, in France they take it to another level entirely and the Anglo-Saxon world doesn’t have anything quite like la rentrée.

For a freelance translator, the relevance of this period of almost total inactivity for many French companies is immediately obvious from an economic perspective as work tends to be a bit quieter over the course of the summer.

However, aside from its economic impact, looking a little more closely at the word’s linguistic presence provides a fruitful topic of discussion for translators in general as the increased usage of the word ‘rentrée‘ in so many French texts at this time of the year presents an interesting challenge.

While the translation of the term isn’t particularly noteworthy within the context of children starting the new academic year – the phrase ‘back-to-school’ is extremely common in the UK and encapsulates this big return – it is in other contexts (I encounter it primarily in a business context e.g. companies welcoming back customers in their press releases, launching new products or offering deals to coincide with la rentrée) that the term’s cultural associations start to pose a few problems.

Initially, it has to be said that la rentrée is an undeniably elegant way to label the period: the word encapsulates so many associations that simply do not exist in English – we don’t experience the same thing so we don’t need a special word for it.

This leaves the translator having to make do with various paraphrases such as ‘after the summer break’, ‘heading into the autumn’, ‘when we reconvene in September’ etc. but none of these selections quite capture the richness of the French source, as discussed below:

‘The back-to-school period’ – While la rentrée can be viewed in a business context as something of a ‘back-to-school for adults’, adopting this solution in a context unrelated to education or the school year can lead to confusion e.g. ‘what is the relevance of children going back to school to this new online product that my business is considering using?’

‘The period after the summer holidays’ – For me, this translation is a slight move in the right direction as it retains something of the sense of renewal contained within ‘back-to-school’ without being overly explicit (the term ‘summer holidays’ is subtly reminiscent of the 6-week school holidays taken by children in the UK). However, this rendering still fails to capture any of the significance of the event beyond alluding to the return to school and work as there is no indication of the increased relevance of the time off or the impact of the return.

‘In the autumn/fall’ or ‘in September’ – Moving even further from the associations with school holidays, this third solution seems slightly preferable to the previous two as the use of ‘autumn’ or ‘September’ neatly rounds off the summer and indicates the start of something new. However, there just isn’t that same sense of impetus contained within a changing of season or month. With la rentrée there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, a sense of renewal and a recharging of batteries that once again escapes the translator’s grasp…

Ultimately, these few example demonstrate that the most common solutions all leave something to be desired and coerce the translator into conjuring up other (usually equally problematic) potential directions to move in. The temptation to simply retain the French word untouched (accompanied by a translator’s note or a brief explanation) is always appealing but rarely practical while a more literal and inventive rendering such as ‘the big return’ or something similar leaves readers asking ‘the big return of what?’ or ‘who’s returning?’

Thankfully for us French translators, the concept of la rentrée is rarely central to a text and any loss is usually minimal even when employing the solutions mentioned above. However, this example just goes to show that there is a lot more going on in translation than the simple linguistic transposition of text on a page.

The process is so often an act of negotiation and compromise encompassing entire cultures and, while we often necessarily have to leave something behind in reproducing a text in a new language, it is the translator’s job to replicate as many meaningful associations as possible.

Vive la rentrée!