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.

The Fun of Nonstandard Lang-diddly-anguage

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a big fan of looking at the creative methods translators have used to tackle specific problems in popular culture and today’s post is certainly along those same lines.
Today’s example comes from the globally-adored series The Simpsons and provides a particularly curious example emerging from the use of (my take on) nonstandard language.
Nonstandard language is often described as being characterized by idiom or vocabulary that is not regarded as correct and acceptable by educated native speakers of a language and Peter Trudgill’s Introducing Language and Society states that nonstandard dialects in English are considered as differing “most importantly at the level of grammar”.
While I don’t want to spend too much time focusing on definitions here, it is worth noting that I prefer to use a more general, neutral understanding of the term than the prejudiced, sociological view put forward by most scholars. In  Linguistics for Non-Linguists, F. Parker and K. Riley define “a standard dialect as one that draws no negative attention to itself” while “a nonstandard dialect does draw negative attention to itself; that is, educated people might judge the speaker of such a dialect as socially inferior, lacking education, and so on” and this characterises nonstandard language in terms of a sociological judgement rather than a linguistic one.
Rather than using a “negative effect” as the defining attribute of nonstandard language, however, I want to look at it as a deviation from our expectations that produces a specific effect. What is nonstandard to me will be perfectly standard to other individuals while the illusory, mythical ‘standard’ is an ethical nightmare as the very claim that there exists a ‘standard’ form of language asserts an ideology of what is and isn’t acceptable. Ultimately, what is certain is that language alters our reading experience in particular ways and it is these effects that must be appreciated by the translator.
Contentious definitions aside, the focus of this post lies in the language of Ned Flanders, a well-known and much-loved character from The Simpsons whose verbal tics have gained a great degree of fame across the globe without ever being discussed in the context of translation (to my knowledge). The closest thing I’ve seen is speculation over what would happen if Google Translate offered ‘Flanders’ as a language.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Flanders verbal tics in English, Ned has the odd habit of attaching “diddly”, “doodly” and other nonsensical phrases to his sentences. This is the result of sublimated anger caused by his upbringing that has no other outlet. He also has the habit of saying “Okally-Dokally” when replying to someone – representing a distorted form of “Okey-dokey” and similarly meaning OK.
In terms of the definition discussed above, when Flanders adds “diddly” to a word, he deviates from our linguistic expectations in such a way to produce a unique, comical effect and this is what needs to be replicated in the translation.
When assimilating these tics to their respective linguistic systems, several European translators opted to use variations of typical expressions (“salut”, “salve” and “hola” in FR, IT and ES for “hi-diddly-ho”) distorted in such a way as to retain the rhyme, alliteration and assonance that characterises the odd, yet distinctive, effect created in the English.
Furthermore, these variations are often developed (similarly to the English) by using suffixes that were themselves initially derived from Romance languages and this aids the translators in producing a natural-sounding yet equally nonsensical end product.

“Hi-diddly-ho neighborino!”
FR: Salit salut, cher voisinou
IT: Salve salvino, vicino
                                                                                                      ES: Hola holita vecinito

“Okally-dokally!”                                                                                   
FR: D’acodac!
                                                                                                                                IT: Certo certosino!

What adds more interest to the situation, however, is the humorous – if ridiculous – fact that Ned’s relatives from around the globe also share his verbal tics. When Ned introduces Homer Simpson to José Flanders  – a relative from Latin America – and Lord Thistlewick Flanders – a snobbish English Flanders – in the episode Lisa the Vegetarian, José uses a Spanish idiom inflected by the English version of the tics and Thistlewick (pressured by Ned) replicates the tics in his exaggerated English accent.
Here is the section in question in English: (the most interesting phrases are highlighted)

Homer: Ned! You’re having a family reunion and you didn’t invite me!?
Ned: Oh, gosh Homer. This is strictly a Flanders affair. I’ve got family here from around the globe. [Points out one relative.] Here’s José Flanders.
José: Buenos ding dong diddly días señor.
Ned: And this is Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Thistlewick: Charmed. [Ned nudges him in the back.] Eh, a googily… doogily.

While José replies here in an English-based, Flandersian Spanish by saying “Buenos ding dong diddly días señor” – incorporating the English tics into a Spanish phrase – other languages must incorporate their own interpretation of the tics outlined above into the translations:

IT:
Jose Flanders: Buenos dindinondandasdias senor!
Ned Flanders: E questo è Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick Flanders: Incantato. [Ned gli da una gomitata] Ehm… can… tatino, cantatino.
FR:
José Flanders: Buenos dius dios dias senior.
Ned: Et voici Lord Thistlewick Flanders.
Lord Thistlewick: Charmé. [Ned lui donne un petit coup de coude] Heu… How di yi di, how do you do ?

As you can see, the nonstandard Spanish used in the English version cannot simply be retained in the French or Italian as, while the audience is considered to be sufficiently familiar with Spanish to make the inclusion of a basic phrase unproblematic, the joke has to be reframed in the context of the pre-existing translation of Ned Flanders’ vocal tics for it to work.
Interestingly, the existence of a third language in the Italian and French versions (the English of Thistlewick to add to the main language and the Spanish of José) allows Thistlewick’s language to be capitalised upon in a manner similar to José’s in the English. While the Italian audience will undoubtedly be familiar with a simple phrase in English (‘How do you do’ is used in the French) this is an opportunity that the Italian version oddly didn’t take.
(Here’s a link to the Latin American version of the episode in question for anyone who fancies checking out another extremely interesting version… The key scene is at about 3:45)
For me, this treatment of nonstandard language usage provides an extreme example of what translators have to do so often in their work. While dialogue is an area where these kinds of verbal deviations are very prominent as it provides “a powerful tool to reveal character traits or social and regional differences” (Taavitsainen et al in Writing in Nonstandard English), a more subtle version of this phenomenon is always present in a text in the form of a particular ‘tone of voice’.
This is particularly important in marketing translations, for example, where a company may want to ensure that their audience receives a certain impression of their values, standing or professionalism. In order to give this impression, their texts must employ a brand of language that adheres to, and deviates from, our expectations in such a way as to create that particular effect and it is down to the translator to replicate it in the target language.
Ultimately, while Flanders’ speech isn’t simply a tone of voice, his language usage nevertheless serves to demonstrate the amazing effects that slight deviations can produce and points to an oft-overlooked level of awareness required on the part of translators.

When a third language complicates the translation process: A look at L3 from Tolstoy to trays.

Translation is considered as the transferral of meaning from one language to another, and the entire foundation of translation theory revolves around binary oppositions e.g. free vs literal translation, dynamic vs formal equivalence, source text and target text.

And yet there are many situations (primarily in literary and audiovisual translation) that see the introduction of a third language, which serves to complicate the translation process. Many modern French novels, for example, are rife with English words, and these are not decisions made on a whim but rather conscious decisions taken by the author to produce a specific effect, and therefore the manner in which they are translated must be considered at length.

David Bellos calls this phenomenon L3 (with the other two languages representing L1 and L2) and, while a similar process in linguistics is often called code-switching, I like L3 as code-switching tends to be a more general term which can even refer to changes in register within one language. This is an area I touched upon in a previous post (How to solve a problem like Peter) and an interesting subject that I want to further elaborate with a few examples.

One commonly cited example in the discussion of L3 (including in Bellos’ book Is that a fish in your ear?) is that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a literary buff’s favourite – commenting upon the use of French in the Russian original. It is estimated that 2 percent of the entire book is in French, and it is used in order to reflect the character’s personalities, as Russian aristocrats at the time would speak French at social occasions as a class marker.

In order for this act of characterisation to be recognised, however, the author is relying upon the audience’s appreciation of this cultural trait and ideally an understanding of the French language, and the fact that Tolstoy himself toyed with various methods – producing Russian translations of all French in footnotes in some versions while removing the French completely in others – is indicative of the difficulty of including another language in a text without even considering the challenges posed when translating.

The task of the French translator of this work is both impossible and easy in that there is very little they can do: translating the French sections back into Russian, for example, would be completely counter-productive and as such they must resign themselves to the bizarre reality of losing a significant element of meaning while keeping the original perfectly intact.

The English translator, on the other hand, has a little more space to work with as several courses of action are available. The familiarity of high-brow English readers with the French language, and the similar usage of French by the British aristocracy as a class marker, allows the possibility of retaining the French and, while most translators still cut the French from the English version to allow an easier read, Pevear and Volokhonsky did indeed choose to retain the French (with translations in footnotes) and their bold decision results in a stronger translation.

The next example highlighting this phenomenon is in quite stark contrast to the one above, coming from a classic British comedy which has managed to cross European borders and one that exploits the use of L3 as a source of great humour.

The series in question is ‘Fawlty Towers’ (or ‘L’Hôtel en folie’ [The Crazy Hotel] to French viewers), and the relationship between it’s owner Basil and Spanish waiter Manuel is the point of interest, with linguistic puns and misunderstandings – all built around traditional stereotypes – presenting an extremely difficult challenge for the translator.

The video above comes from the very first episode of the series and epitomises this type of humour. The confusion caused by combining Basil’s broken Spanish and Manuel’s virtually non-existent English is as funny as it is hard to translate – with the confusion between ‘on those trays’ and ‘uno, dos, tres’ providing the most obvious challenge.

The French subtitles to this scene succeed in retaining some of the misunderstanding between the characters but fail to reproduce the original joke (which would be some feat). Basil states ‘il y a trop de beurre. Ils sont à l’étroit.’ (there is too much butter. They [the trays] are cramped), Manuel then mishears this second sentence and repeats it as ‘ils sont là, les trois.’ (they are there, the three) – with the two sentences sounding similar in French – and proceeds to count them in Spanish. A decent attempt, yet one which misses the mark slightly for me. (Saying that, I can’t think of anything better… Anyone?)

It is also very interesting to note how the character of Manuel was transformed in versions across Europe in order to adhere to national stereotypes. He couldn’t very well still be Spanish in the Spanish version of the show given how poorly he is treated and as such he became the Italian Paolo (or Manuela in Basque regions) while in France and Catalonia – where the national stereotype of Spanish workers does not match the English portrayal given here – he becomes a Mexican Manuel.

So there you have it: it is hard enough to negotiate a transfer of meaning between two languages and, as these two examples show, when there is an L3 (or worse still, an L4, 5, or 6) to contend with, it complicates matters even further. Until next time.