In learning languages, translation is the fifth skill: read, write, speak, understand orally and translate—the ability to integrate all communication skills. Translating means studying both the source language and one’s own, the target language. Texts must be so carefully analysed that students learn a lot of both. We are all translators. If a text is written in another language, we cannot even pronounce it. If we want to read it, we need to read in translation. Yet, translation is poorly recognized: we know the author but seldom the translator.
I teach a seminar on literary translation for advanced students of Italian, many of whom have returned from Bologna, where Vassar has a JYA program. Because bilingualism is an essential part of the foreign language classroom, teaching a course on translation makes trans-lation conspicuous. Being a scholar of the Italian Middle Ages, translation studies is not my original field, but bilingualism is the story of my life! I grew up in southern Switzerland, where the official language is Italian. I learned French and German in school, and English in this country. When they learn another language, students also become bilingual, making translation the story of their life as well.
Ultimately, life itself is translation between different systems of signs, as literary critic George Steiner said: “Inside or between languages, human communication equals translation.”
Are there translations among books important to you? This is the first questions I ask stu-dents. Of the approximately 7,000 spoken languages, 80 are “vehicular,” i.e. the medium of communication between different languages. English is the main one, resulting in 80 percent of translations from English and 8 percent into English. In the US, about 3 percent of published books are literary translations; in Western Europe, between 25 and 40 percent or more. This is an instructive way of considering the relationship between cultures, where English is central, and all other languages are either semi-central or peripheral.
I chose literary translation because the language of literature is primarily expressive, and employing metaphors, neologisms, cultural allusions, etc., allows one to use one’s creativity. Translation is amid the most complex activities, as it involves both problem solving and imaginative processes. We must know the language and culture we translate from, have good general culture and writing skills, be analytical, perfectionist and creative…Translating is fun but, while offering great intellectual rewards, it’s hard work—computer scientists have been struggling to conceive a tool substituting human Translators.
Critical debate has focused on the possibility/impossibility of translation. Indeed, if we ask people with comparable language competency to translate a text, no one will produce the same version. This conundrum could be solved by Umberto Eco’s formula that translating is “saying almost the same thing.”
Translators are negotiators who, while facing a single word, never lose sight of the rest, and then decide, discarding all other possibilities. Lack of correspondence between words makes translation problematic, never impossible. Everything can be said in any language, so the obstacle is not difference between languages, but interpretation of the original. Translating is all about choice.