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On translating and being translated

March 30, 2003|Primo Levi | Primo Levi, the author of many books, including "The Periodic Table," "The Monkey's Wrench" and "Survival in Auschwitz," died in 1987. This essay, translated from the Italian by Zaia Alexander, appears in English for the first time.

Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: This made them so ambitious and skillful they began to construct a tower that reached the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not by striking them with lightning but by confusing their tongues, thus making it impossible for them to carry on with their blasphemous work. It is certainly no coincidence that the story directly preceding this one tells of man's original sin and punishment by expulsion from paradise. We might conclude that from earliest times linguistic difference had been considered a malediction.

It continues to be a malediction to this day, as anyone knows who has had to live or, worse, work in a country where he did not know the language. Or who has had to cram a foreign language into his brain as an adult, once that mysterious material upon which memories are engraved becomes more refractory. Furthermore, there are many people who believe, more or less consciously, that a person who speaks another language is an outsider by definition, a foreigner, strange and, hence, a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian; that is, etymologically, a stutterer, a person who doesn't know how to speak, almost a nonperson. In this way, linguistic friction tends to turn into racial and political friction, another of our maledictions.

It should follow that whoever practices the craft of translation or acts as an interpreter ought to be honored for striving to limit the damage caused by the curse of Babel, but this does not usually happen. Since translation is a difficult job, the outcome is often inferior. This gives birth to a vicious circle: Translators are paid poorly and those who are good at it look for a better-paying profession.

Translating is difficult because the barriers between languages are greater than is commonly believed. Dictionaries, particularly the pocket-sized ones used by tourists, may be useful for basic needs, but they constitute a dangerous font of illusion. The same can be said of the computerized, multilingual translators that have been available on the market for some time now. There is almost never any true equivalence between an expression in the source language and its corresponding one in the target language. The respective meanings may overlap in part, but it is rare for them to match, even between languages that are structurally close and historically related.

Invidia (envy) in Italian has a more specialized meaning than envie in French, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, which contains hatred, aversion, as can be seen in the Italian adjective inviso (disliked). It is probable that the origin of this family of words goes back to veder male, which either means to give somebody the evil eye or denotes the discomfort we feel when looking at a person we despise, which is expressed by non possiamo vederla (we can't stand the sight of her). But then, in each language, the meaning of the term slips off in a different direction.

There do not appear to be languages with a wider or narrower sphere: The phenomenon is capricious. Fregare (rub, scrub, polish, strike, deceive, swipe etc.) in Italian covers at least seven meanings; "to get" in English is practically infinite; Stuhl in German and "stool" in English mean chair but, through a chain of metonymic senses, it would be easy to reconstruct how it came to mean excrement as well. Only Italian seems to be concerned with distinguishing between the words "feather" and "down": French, English and German don't care about the difference, and Feder in German signifies four distinct objects -- down, a quill, a pen to write with and any kind of spring.

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