Bright arrogance #2

The Traduttoreador Tradition

Traduttore, traditore”: a cliché perhaps not worth repeating (like most bon-mots about translation, including that singularly awful quote from Yevtushenko). Except that, pari passu and funiculi, funicula, it doesn’t get repeated enough. That is, in its original it’s a near sonic repetition, with only one changed vowel—it is a repetition, then, that is subject to disavowal when you say “translator, traitor” in English.

How then to return this saying to its uncanny, paradoxical, panicky origins—in which a slippage so small creates a chasm of moral distinction—while perhaps in the process undoing it altogether? We do have words in our language that provide a more apt etymological analog for “traduttore, traditore,” and those are words stemming from the Latin “traducere” (carrying from one place to another) from which the Italian saying also derives its roots. You could, entirely plausibly within our language, say “traductor, traducer,” although the meaning might not be immediately legible, given these terms are no longer in common use (even though the concept of transduction might help us connect these translation experiments in literature to the types of electronic works we will discuss further on). But the advantage of this weird conjunction of “traductor” and “traducer” would be, in effect, to maintain the optic and sonic illusion of the original Italian, while adding a mental one in which you try to keep a distinction between already unfamiliar terms straight.

As well, these words in English maintain the same kind of toxic residue that adheres to the original Italian. A look at an online dictionary shows that “traduce” has lost its more innocent, now obsolete meanings of “translate, carry from one place to another, to transfer, to pass on to offspring,” and a particularly egregious clip-art illustration links its now common usages (backbiter, libeler, defamer, maligner, slanderer, vilifier, depreciator, detractor, disparager, knocker) to an image of two teenage girls whispering to each other. This gendering of the act of translational infidelity is nothing new (see Yevtushenko, et al.), although I like to think they are talking about a really outrageously good new experimental translation work by Paul Legault.

It’s enough to make one wonder at what’s so screwed up with our linguistic entropy, its clinamen, its spin, given the sheer vanilla abstractions of these word roots compared to the monstrosities they’ve become. An Italian etymological dictionary tells us that tradurre is merely to carry across from one place to another, whereas tradire implies to put in hand, literally “to transmit.”[1] Yet it goes on to editorialize on the sad meaning to which “tradire” has declined, and posits its Gallic spin as maintaining a less provincial, more global outlook. “The French use it more appropriately, to discover, to unravel, for instance, when one finds the meaning of a secret and wants to consign it to another entrusted.” Thus, the twist that the Italian gives to “traditore” seems more the product of centuries of cultural insinuation, traditore traditore’d, if you will, than its given meaning—if there actually is such a thing, and thus lies our problem. See, for example, Jack Spicer’s use of metaphor as a metaphor for translation and transmission as “bearing across,” and the pun to which that turns and the guilt that undergirds it.

In the end, though, “traduttore, traditore,” is taken out of historical context—and like most clichés the impact of its original referent has been dulled or lost altogether. Once meant to imply the dangers of transmitting religious or cult secrets (and thus an anxious holdout from when more local, oral experience of transmitted authority came to be replaced by the written), it has outworn its stay in a more global, secularized context.[2] The most correct translation, and also the most wrong, would be not to translate at all. If you don’t want to be traitorous (or transmittorous), you can just say “I don’t speak Italian,” and shore up your national identity—a choice which has serious implications, merely reinforcing monocultural xenophobia. So we can just stop translating in a jingoistic paroxysm of pride—or misguided overconcern for the fictional purity of our cultural partners—or we can more guiltlessly go with the twist of language as our inevitable condition and across to bear as “unrevealers, unravelers,” “lyre liars,” or perhaps, more simply, traduttoreadors. [3]




1. If we say these seemingly innocent words are “verbs transitive” we undergo another little verbal hallucination, given that “transitive” means to “go across” in a similar way that tradurre crosses. To say “tradurre is a verb transitive,” one could just as well say “to go across is a verb that crosses,” “translation is a verb that translates,” “translation translates the translatable,” or even “verb verbs verb.” When we are talking about translation we are having a meta-conversation about how language moves. (Paolo Bartoloni describes those who declare the sameness of the original and the translation as making an “oxymoronic reading of movement, which in effect pretends to negate the occurrence of any movement.”) Add to that the fact that the word “translation” is merely a “translation” of the Greek “metaphor” and there are some serious rabbit holes that open up. Parse, if you will, this perhaps intentionally arch sentence from David Bellos’s Is That A Fish in Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything: “The common terms of translation studies are metaphorical extensions—elaborations of the metaphor—of the etymological meaning of the term ‘translation’ itself.”

2. As we’ll see in future posts, assertion of this secular context as the context of experimental translation, especially considering the impact of Benjamin, is a flawed one. Perhaps the space of the blog-without-hypertext pushes one’s hands on temporary solutions that are unsatisfactory, yet convenient. In fact, theorists of translation as diverse as Peter Lamborn Wilson and Gayatri Spivak renounce the false choice between fascist fundamentalism and bourgeois secularism, to authorize completely different modes of translation. Lamborn Wilson, whose methods are more in line with the approach of the creative translator, espouses what he calls “hermetalinguistics” to counter both the “nihilistic linguistics” of postmodern relativism and what he calls the “heavymetalinguistics” of writers like Burroughs, whom he nevertheless appreciates. Spivak, despite her poststructural intellectual heritage, is “haunted by the ethical;” even though she resists the easy mimesis of cultural others in translation, her approach is one of “great caution and humility,” a humility that is eroded by the cultural impositions of the “self-selected moral entrepreneurs” of Western secularism: “Those sanitized secularists who are hysterical at the mention of religion are quite out of touch with the world’s peoples. . . . I hope I have been able at least to suggest that this state of the world has something to do with a failure of responsible translation.”

3. Citing the notion in Biblical interpretation—convenient for translators—that one should pay attention to the concepts and not the words themselves, Roman Jakobson reflects on what would happen if the pun were evacuated from “traduttore, traditore”: “If we were to translate into English the traditional formula Traduttore, traditore as ‘the translator is a betrayer,’ we would deprive the Italian rhyming epigram of all its paronomastic value. Hence a cognitive attitude would compel us to change this aphorism into a more explicit statement and to answer the questions: translator of what messages? betrayer of what values?”