This article will discuss how much and why it is important for a translator to travel.
Georges Mounin, an important linguist and theorist of translation, said that “to translate well, it is not enough to study a language; one must also study the corresponding culture systematically. Stays abroad, for example, are not simply a small optional supplement to the skills of a good translator, they are indeed a good half of his knowledge.”
But why is it so important to know a language’s culture when you are studying it and even more so when you have to translate a text? Let’s try to show this as scientifically as possible.
We all know the painting by the surrealist painter Magritte “La Trahison des images” [The Treachery of Images] depicting a pipe and right below there is a provocative caption Ceci n’est pas une pipe [This is not a pipe]. According to Magritte, the painting is not a pipe because it is not a real object but a representation of one. The artist relies on the complexity and misunderstandings of human language to dispel the supposed overlapping between reality and images, arguing his thesis perfectly, especially when he explains that in fact no one could smoke the pipe in his painting. According to the artist, reality and images are on two different and parallel planes.
To return to our world, Ferdinand de Saussure, father of modern linguistics, had already explained this difference in the principle of arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, according to which the name assigned to an object is not intrinsically linked to its concept but is only the result of a tacit convention between speakers. The letters and sounds of the word “house” therefore do not contain its concept, but serve only to the speakers to identify the content. Here too, reality and words are on two different and parallel planes.
On the one hand, therefore, reality, on the other, representation, images, names and words. But what is the relationship between these two levels and how do they relate to each other? Our work actually consists of processing continuous flows of thousands of words. Words are certainly the level closest to us and what we dwell on most of all, sometimes hours, until we find the synonym or the perfect collocation, but are we sure that words are the focus of our activity?
In reality, they are the most ephemeral aspect since Saussure also said that language is nothing more than the reflection of a community’s system of values that can also change over time. Words are therefore only the consequence of the history of a people with its environmental, food and cultural characteristics and habits, they are only the tip of the iceberg. How can one expect to have a full understanding without the knowledge of the culture of the words we are elaborating, studying and translating?
Fish and chips, Caffè, Tortillas, and Omelette are just four classic and evocative examples of how it is impossible to really understand a word without going through the history and daily life of its speakers. Needless to say, despite one’s remote efforts, only immersion in the native-speaking country can be effective in understanding a culture. Translation also means twice the workload, as you also need to know the culture of the target language and choose the most appropriate translation technique for the text and audience.
Each community of speakers constitutes its society and its institutions and distributes the semantic fields of its reality in a given mosaic of words. Therefore, on the occasion of World Translation Day, all I can do is to wish us all… Bon voyage!