Zen and art of translation

Posted: 11/17/2011 in Language
Tags: , , , ,

To me, translation is more an art than a science. And translators are very much like artists. A proof that translation is an art can be found in the fact that what may seem to be a beautifully crafted translation to someone, may not seem so to somebody else.

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

Translating is like playing music. Some people may like it, other people may not. Mozart was a great composer, but that doesn’t mean that everybody likes his music! Musicians work with sounds, translators work with words. And exactly like in music sometimes a cover can be better than the original, also translations sometime can be better than the original. The great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, after reading a great translation once said “The original is unfaithful to the translation.” Meaning that the translation was better.

The role of translators, like that of musicians, is not passive or mechanical. You may know how to play the piano, but that doesn’t mean that you can execute Puccini. At the same time you may speak a second language, but that doesn’t mean you can render the message in the same way it was intended by its original author. Translators need to master not only the language but also what’s behind it.

This is because translators are a sort of a bridge between different cultures, that of the source language and that of the target language. In fact, the word translation comes from the Latin “translatio”, which itself comes from “trans” and “fero”, together meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across”).

I recently found this video on the art of translation. It’s rather long (56 minutes). It’s in Italian with subtitles, but also with some parts in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.



The title of the video is Tradurre “Translating” by Pier Paolo Giarolo, published in 2007. The 12 translators appearing in the video are:

Erri De Luca
Fulvio Ferrari
Silvia Pareschi
Luca Scarlini
Nadia Fusini
Donata Feroldi
Elisabetta Bartuli
Rita Desti
Anna Nadotti
Paola Tomasinelli
Maurizia Balmelli
Enrico Ganni.

I find it very inspiring. And I personally have a lot of respect for that translator (Luca Scarlini) at minutes 23, when he says that he started this profession to impress a person who was very important to him. And how he did it? By translating Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Ezra Pound.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

Here is an excerpt:
Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.

Enjoy the video!

Francesco Pugliano

  1. Ciao Francesco, sono una tua collega che compare in questo film. E per coincidenza ora vivo anch’io per buona parte dell’anno a San Francisco. Se vuoi un giorno possiamo vederci per bere un caffè e parlare di traduzione. 🙂

    • francesco says:

      Molto volentieri Silvia!

    • francesco says:

      Ciao Silvia,

      mia sorella Marina è venuta a trovarmi qui a San Jose. Perché non ci incontriamo per un caffe, visto che voi due fate proprio lo stesso lavoro? Lei riparte il Labor Day…


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