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Translator's Note - Italy, Bergamo, Torquato Tasso

Morning cappuccino at Caffè del Tasso on Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia

What do a great Italian poet (1544-1595) and a great (actually, the great, as it was the only one) Soviet news agency (1925-1992) have in common? Their origin! I don’t mean the Origin as in my previous blog post, although translating for TASS (you guessed it right, that is how this only news agency was called) might have had something in common with Translating for Bob, in a metaphorical sense. No, I mean their origin verbatim. That is, their names are derived from the same word. So the answer is “both have the same name”, and if you, to quote another great poet of that period, ask “What’s in a name?”, the answer is that both names mean practically the same.

But before I go on with this riddle, I’d rather begin from the start.

This August I went hiking in Lombardy, North Italy. An one hour drive from Bergamo, the province’s capital, will bring you to Camerata Cornello, all along the beautiful Brembana valley. From here you can go hiking to higher altitudes (up to 2,000 meters) and away from the civilization. I was lucky enough to arrive at Camerata Cornello just before noon, closing time of the local municipal office. I saw the sign Pro Loco (a local tourism promotion organization) on the building which also housed the municipal office and the town school (you have to be multitasking in a village of some 600 inhabitants). Here I was hoping to get a map of sentieri (hiking paths). Unfortunately, the Pro Loco office turned out to be closed or dissolved altogether, but the three men in the mayor’s office (maybe one of them was the mayor himself, I don’t know), despite their hurry to get things done before going to lunch, did their best to provide me with all the available information they had. In fact, they gave me every English-language publication they happened to find in their office and the carta dei sentieri.

Als Dolmetscher unterwegs - auch in Italien - Wanderwege Bergamo

Among flyers and brochures was a 200 page, scientific-looking volume entitled “I Tasso e l’Europa”, a product of the 1st International Convention “The Tasso Scholars. Between Sorrento and Bergamo“ held in Camerata Cornello in May 2012. Too heavy for the backpack and generally not of much use for my immediate hiking tour, it was a touching gift nevertheless, and I made a mental note to read or at least leaf through it whenever the occasion would come up. So I did the next days. The place and the book got me interested.

Article on translation errors - Anmerkungen des Übersetzers

“I Tasso e l’Europa” is a compilation of conference papers on the role of these two, Sorrento and Bergamo, and other locations in the life of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). It was in Camerata Cornello where the illustrious, but fugitive Tasso family found shelter among the political turbulences of that time. The Tassos settled in Cornello dei Tasso, a small, medieval village, which is still accessible only on foot. It took me some 20 minutes to reach Cornello dei Tasso from Camerata, but, although only a tiny cluster of stone houses, made up for the whole trip.

Cornello des Tasso - Als Dolmetscher Unterwegs

Cornello dei Tasso

The Cornello episode in the life of the poet’s family is dealt with in the article “Bergamo, City of the Tassos” by Mons. Daniele Rota. The article also sheds light on the linguistic aspects of some proper names. In particular, it goes into much detail about the name “Tasso” itself. This is where the “breaking news” occurs. According to Mons. Daniele Rota, the persecuted exiles from Milano “drew inspiration from the name of the plant” (Taxus) which was also known as the tree of death and was believed to be dangerous to sleep under. “The assumption of this new surname… reveals itself within a few decades to be of a prophetic, magical efficiency. This name, which was adopted furtively by Milanese exiles in Bergamo, has become a common word… to describe everyday behavior and phenomena which have since become universally known… For example, the term “taxes” (tasse) is still used today to indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services. Financial institutions determine the banking “rate” (tasso). People use taxis as a mode of fast transport. In Russia, breaking news is delivered by the Tass Agency” (p. 168).

Oh my, breaking news indeed! I don’t have the authority to deny any logical (or historical) connection between the tree of death and taxi as a “mode of fast transport”, but a quick Google check would have revealed to the author that Tass Agency is a simple abbreviation meaning Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, in Russian: Телеграфное Агентство Советского Союза (ТАСС). Sorry to disappoint you, Mons. Daniele Rota, but it was called Tass not to “indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services” and certainly not because of any breaking news it used to deliver.

So Volksetymologie lives on. Etymological fallacies, common misconceptions, and straight dope are still to be found even in today’s scholarly work and scientific publications. Does it qualify as news? There was no conspiracy between the medieval, mighty and mysterious Milano fugitives and the sinister masterminds of Soviet propaganda, but it would have made a nice story (se non è vero, è ben trovato, like they say in Italian). From now on, I am going to think of Tasso any time I happen to hear some breaking news in Russian. I will probably be reminded of the Italian poet also when sitting in a plane taxiing on the runway or maybe, occasionally, even seeing a taxi on the street.

It would have been a nice news story if the English translator of the article had made a quick Google check when rendering the “Tass as deliverer of breaking news” passage. Unfortunately, not every translator “vets the sources”, like they say in espionage novels, although I am used to believe that translators, in the rule, are more meticulous and thorough than the authors whose works they translate. Well, some are meticulous and some are not. In this particular case, the English translator obviously didn’t go to great lengths to check on the accuracy of the information he was translating.

No breaking news. I didn’t go far from Cornello dei Tasso either. Another footpath brought me to Oneta, the birthplace of Harlequin. I never realized it was not just a clown, a character from Commedia dell’Arte or a ballet enemy of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but another grand Italian family (if you still believe the scholars). From Oneta I went back to Cornello and further on into the mountains. My initial plan was to reach Cespedosio (altitude 1,100 m) and go back to Camerata. But I didn’t have the time. It took me a couple of hours to go up the serpentine road to Brembella and then it was already getting dark. I had to go back, to my Smart parked near the municipal office (rented from AutoEuropa, I promised to mention this car rental company and their bargain prices…).

It was a very nice hike nevertheless. On the way, I was listening to the audio edition of Farther Away, a collection of essays, reviews and speeches by Jonathan Franzen. These are overwhelming stories. I think it was “The Chinese Puffin”, the longest one, which I was listening to on the way back to Camerata. And later on in the car, the whole way back to Bergamo, home of the Tassi.

Italien - Blog eines russischen Übersetzers - Translator's note

Devil - Translation - Blog - Anmerkungen des Übersetzers - russisch

If you ever thought being a translator means a dull, uninspiring job for an office drudge or a nerd, this is a book to put everything in the right perspective. It is precisely due to his job in a stagnating language services market, threatened by the ever-tightening grip of the globalization, that Andy Dennison, a linguist and translator, gets the chance of his life to enroll in a great adventure and eventually save the mankind. Origin, a technothriller by J.A. Konrath, is a story of cosmic dimension which leaves nothing short of extraordinary. Andy Dennison is summoned by none other than the President of the United States to an underground facility somewhere in Nevada. Considerations of national interest require that the alien creature found by workers who built the Panama canal in 1906 be finally taken care of and attended to by a language genius. (After so many years, the giant creature woke up and started talking in a language nobody understands.) Never mind the creature can do perfectly well without support of a language professional as it manages to learn English within a couple of days and devour masses of knowledge available on the Internet no less slowly. Afterward, things begin to amp up. The infernal creature, a demon or Lucifer himself, grows nastier and nastier until it becomes a threat for the inmates of the compound (a catholic priest, a rabbi, a high-ranking military commander, a bunch of weird scientists and other apostate figures) and then proceeds to destroy the human civilization.

Actually, “Bob” (the creature) is called “Bub” (short for Beelzebub), but, since I had the book in an audio version and my German-Russian ear cannot apparently register any difference between “ob” and “ub” in the American English pronunciation (remember the story of the American ROBBER barons changed in the German translation of a TV documentary to “Gummi Barone” – RUBBER barons), I’d prefer to call it Bob. (Apart from the fact, that “Translating for BUB” as a blog post title doesn’t sound so good and might suggest one more translator complaining about his bad experience when working with another bad translation agency with another acronym name.)

Well, things start to go terribly wrong in a screenplay fashion. The Alien meets the Jurassic Park meets the Exorcist meets the Independence Day, as humans and demons pool together to escape the nuclear Apocalypse. I start to wonder who is going to star as Andy Dennison, our language professional, when Hollywood produces a mainstream blockbuster about this major government conspiracy and a sequel hereto – in fact, Origin ends (I managed to listen to the end!) predictably enough to provide room for Origin II, in line with one of the book’s key words resurrection.
As the plot evolves, you might find it entertaining to partake of the theological discussion, ancient Mayan mythology or learn some pseudo-facts about genetic programming, for a change. No wonder the book is a technothriller and is called Origin.

Unfortunately, you won’t learn much about our profession, notwithstanding the main protagonist being a highly skilled language interpreter.
The book certainly doesn’t belong to what we usually (confess to) read or listen to, but, on the other hand, I know quite a few colleague translators who are fans of Dan Brown or The Twilight Saga and what not.

So, if you fancy some easy reading or listening, and remember – it is a book about a translator – Origin might turn out to be quite entertaining and amusing for you.

In such a case, enjoy and God bless you!


David Bellos - Buch über Übersetzung - Rezension

Das neueste Buch von David Bellos (“Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything”, Faber & Faber, New York, 2011) gehört in die Kategorie Populärwissenschaft. „Populärwissenschaftliche Literatur zielt nicht auf Wissenschaftler, sondern vielmehr auf den interessierten Laien ab… Bei den Verfassern populärwissenschaftlicher Literatur handelt es sich in der Regel um Wissenschaftler oder Wissenschaftsjournalisten“, so Wikipedia. Damit stellen wir eins von vornherein fest: Das Buch handelt von Übersetzungen und Sprachen und ist von einem Übersetzer (auch Wissenschaftler, denn David Bellos unterrichtet Französisch und Komparative Literatur an der Princeton-Universität und ist Leiter des Princeton-Programms Übersetzung und Interkulturelle Kommunikation) geschrieben. Zugleich ist das Buch weniger für professionelle Übersetzer/Dolmetscher gedacht, sondern vielmehr für alle, die sich für Übersetzungen und Sprachen interessieren.

Diesen „interessierten Laien“ bietet das Buch eine Menge an aufklärenden, unterhaltsamen und zum Denken anregenden Informationen. Dazu gehören zahlreiche facts and figures über exotische Sprachen, Sprachgebräuche und allerlei sprachliche Idiosynkrasien. Was das Wort „Barbar“ ursprünglich für die Griechen bedeutete und warum Deutsche auf Russisch „nemcy“ heißen? Mit den gelieferten Erklärungen kann man durchaus bei Wer wird Millionär punkten, aber auch ernstere, historische Ausführungen tragen zur Verbesserung des allgemeinen Wissensstands bei.

Dazu zählt die Geschichte des Simultanübersetzens, die auf den Nürnberger Prozess zurückgeht. Oder die Beschreibung der Arbeitsweise der Generaldirektion Übersetzung in der EU sowie Beispiele kniffliger Interpretationen von juristischen Formulierungen für und wider des Angeklagten, je nachdem welcher Sprachversion der EU-Regelung der Richter sich bedient. Auch amüsante, bereits anekdotisch gewordene Geschichten über translatorische Schwierigkeiten während politischer Auftritte (Stichwort Nikita Chruschtschow) fehlen nicht in diesem Buch.

Naturgemäß spielt das Thema Humor in der Übersetzung bzw. die Frage, ob sich Humor übersetzen lässt, eine wichtige Rolle im Buch, in dessen Titel schon eine humorvolle Frage steht. Unter vielen Beispielen ist mein Favorit David Bellos’ eigene Übersetzung der ironisch-parodistischen Visitenkarte, die der Held des Romans von Georges Perec im Schaufenster eines Pariser Geschäfts entdeckt:

 Adolf Hitler

Das französische Wort fourreur bedeutet Pelzhändler bzw. Kürschner, entspricht aber zugleich der französischen Aussprache des deutschen Worts „Führer“. Die englische Übersetzung dieser joke visiting card von David Bellos lautet:

 Adolf Hitler
German Lieder

Auch wenn das Buch, wie ich anfangs schrieb, weniger für professionelle Übersetzer und Dolmetscher gedacht ist, so finden language professionals hier doch jede Menge wertvolle, aufschlussreiche Erkenntnisse und Informationen. Zugegeben, die Problematik der Übersetzung von Gedichten (Strophenform, Reim, Metrum usw.) zieht am Übersetzer technischer Dokumentationen vorbei. Jedoch haben viele Themen, die das Buch behandelt, eine universelle, logisch-philosophische Relevanz.

Zum einen betrifft es die Rolle und den Stellenwert der Übersetzung in der Kultur. Interessant ist die Differenzierung zwischen translation UP und translation DOWN, aber auch das Thema Sinn oder Bedeutung, das eigentliche Thema dieses Buches (“Translation and the Meaning of Everything”), wird hier sehr geistreich und innovativ behandelt. So z.B. wie die Übersetzung hilft, selbst das vermeintlich Unaussprechliche des Originals zu durchleuchten und zu verstehen (“one of the truths of translation – one of the truths that translation teaches – is that everything is effable”).

Zum anderen sind es David Bellos’ Thesen zum Thema Kontext. Deren populärwissenschaftlicher Charakter schmälert in keinster Weise den inhaltlichen Wert dieser Ausführungen im engen beruflichen Sinne. “Translation means translating meaning.” Und: “Any piece of language behavior, even a simple request for coffee, acquires a different meaning when its context of utterance is changed”.

Das Beispiel mit der französischen Übersetzung des finales Satzes “It’s complicated” in einem amerikanischen Film als „Pas si simple!“ (und nicht „C’est compliqué“) hätte mir sicherlich geholfen, als ein Unternehmensberater, für den ich mal dolmetschte, mich fragte, warum ich häufig, wenn es um „kleine Unternehmen“ im Deutschen geht, im Russischen eher «небольшое предприятие», also „nicht-großes Unternehmen“ sage.

All die Kollegen, die sich vor der Zunahme maschineller Übersetzungen fürchten, würden sich in ihren Sorgen nach der Lektüre des Kapitels über Google Translate bestärkt fühlen. Ohne dieses Buch hätte ich nicht gewusst, dass die Grand Challenges of the 21st Century, wie diese in der Science Policy Roadmap der US-Administration formuliert sind, neben billigen („wie Wandfarbe“) Solarzellen und intelligenten Prothesen auch die Entwicklung von “automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation between the major languages of the world – greatly lowering the barriers to international commerce and collaboration” vorsieht.

Zwei “truths about translations”, die in diesem Buch offenbart sind, finde ich besonders wichtig. Die erste Wahrheit betrifft sowohl Kontext als auch den Adressaten: “Translators do not translate Chinese kitchen recipes ‘into English’. If they are translators, they translate them into kitchen recipes”. Was der US-amerikanische Dichter C.K. Williams über Poesie sagt: “You don’t translate poetry into ‘English’ but into poetry”, sollte eigentlich als Gebot für alle Übersetzungen gelten. Eine deutsche Betriebsanleitung ins Russische zu übersetzen bedeutet diese Betriebsanleitung nun für den russischen Adressaten zu erstellen.

Die zweite Wahrheit ist David Bellos’ Antwort auf die Frage, was in der Übersetzung verloren geht. Um im populärwissenschaftlichen Genre zu bleiben, verzichte ich auf einen Exkurs zum Thema Denotative und konnotative Bedeutung (auch wenn der Begriff connotation in diesem Buch mir doch fehlte). Hier die abschließenden Worte des Autors: “If you’re looking for the ineffable, stop here. It’s blindingly obvious. It’s not poetry but community that is lost in translation. The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does. But translation does almost everything else. It is translation, more than speech itself, that provides incontrovertible evidence of the human capacity to think and to communicate thought. We should do more of it.”

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