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Translation And Interpreting Methods And Approaches

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The disciplines of language translation and interpreting serve the purpose of making communication possible between speakers of different languages.

In the past there has been a tendency to perceive interpreting as an area of translation, but from the second half of the 20th century differentiation between the two areas has become necessary.

As supported by many researchers, translation and interpreting can be perceived as the process that allows the transfer of sense from one language to another, rather than the transfer of the linguistic meaning of each word.

Firstly it is necessary to understand the difference between the concepts of linguistic meaning and sense.

According to the definition given by Bolinger and Sears, “the word is the smallest unit of language that can be used by itself” (Bolinger and Sears, 1968:43). Each unit has a lexical meaning, which determines the value and the identity of each word in a specific language. However this does not necessarily mean that lexical units also correspond to the basic meaningful elements in a language, as meaning is usually carried by units that can be smaller or larger than the word.

Furthermore each word corresponds to a phoneme. However a phoneme can carry several linguistic meanings, depending on the way it relates to the rest of the speech. For example, the Italian translation of the English phoneme /nait/, isolated from its context, can be either “cavaliere” (knight) or “notte” (night). However if the speaker talked about a “chivalrous and courageous knight”, there would be no hesitation in choosing the Italian translation “cavaliere”, rather than “notte”.

Therefore Seleskovitch points out that when drawing a difference between linguistic meaning and sense it is important to remember that in speech words lose some of the potential meanings attached to their phonemic structure and retain only their contextual relevant meaning.

However even whole utterances that have a clear linguistic meaning can raise problems if isolated from the context. Therefore during the act of communication the listener automatically attaches his previously acquired knowledge to the language sounds, which immediately clarifies the sense of the utterance. This cognitive addition is independent from the semantic components of the speech and represents another fundamental difference between linguistic meaning and sense.

This cognitive process is significantly reduced in translation compared to interpreting, especially when dealing with ancient or unfamiliar texts, as the translator can take his time to analyse every single word or phrase, preventing consciousness from immediately identifying the sense of the utterance. Interpreters instead are restricted by the immediacy of the process of communication and have to grasp the meaning regardless of the equivalence at the word-level.

Memory is another fundamental part of communication, as the listener retains his previously acquired knowledge to grasp the sense.

Seleskovitch also adds that sense is always conscious. When we speak our own language the choice of words is not deliberate. All we do is to convey the message in the best way we can, so the result can change from one speaker to another. As a consequence, there can be several ways to express the same idea but all the utterances produced with that purpose would reflect a particular shape, which results from the semantics of a specific language.

Nevertheless different languages do not express the same idea with the same semantic components and that is why a simple conversion of one language into another cannot be satisfactory in translation or interpreting.

Seleskovitch argues that words are meaningless unless there is a cognitive addition on behalf of both the sender and the recipient of the message. Words become meaningful only when referred to a specific object or concept. However words that have the same meaning in different languages do not associate with the same words in more complex contexts designing the same thing in different languages. This is because languages only reveal part of our knowledge, thus leaving implicit concepts unsaid.

Therefore the cognitive addition is necessary.

For example, the literary English translation of the Italian phrase:

Il presidente del Consiglio si è recato a Mosca.

would be:

The President of the Council went to Moscow.

This translation would misinterpret a crucial information in the speech. In fact “Presidente del Consiglio” is one of the ways to designate the Prime Minister in Italian.

Thus in most cases if the translation or the interpretation was carried out only on a word level it would either produce utterances that sound very unnatural to the native speaker of the target language or it would distort the meaning.

In support of this statement I would like to show an example of how a word-by-word translation from Italian into English can produce misleading utterances.

Let’s take into analysis the following Italian phrases:

Fammi avere tue notizie ogni giorno.

A back translation into English would produce:

Let me have your news every day.

Although the word news (notizie) can be used in both languages in a similar way the English translation sounds extremely unnatural. In English we can have news from somebody, but not your or his or their news. However, even if the utterances was translated as:

Let me have news from you every day,it would not sound spontaneous.

A native speaker would probably say:

I’d like to hear from you every day.

Therefore both the grammatical structure “fammi” and the semantic components used in the original version would be replaced by more appropriate alternatives in English.

There are other cases where the lexical meaning of the word “notizia” would not have an equivalent in English.

I giovani d’oggi non fanno più notizia.

A word-by-word English translation of this phrase would be:

The youth of today do no make the news anymore.

In English the same linguistic meanings cannot convey the sense of the original sentence. If translated as:

The youth of today does not appear in the news anymore,

the sense conveyed by the Italian “fare notizia” would be misinterpreted. A more faithful translation would be:

The youth of today does not shock us anymore.

This shows that translation and interpreting go beyond the transfer of the linguistic meaning of each word from one language to another.


About the Author:

The author is a partner at
Axis Translations He specialises in the management of Italian translation and technical projects.

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