Trans-lation: Aspect of trans-reference in the trans-lator


When starting to meditate on the  topic of this paper, trans-lation immediately had in my ear an assonance with trans-ference. In fact what I immediately realized was that they share exactly the same etymology as they both derive from the Latin verb trans-ferre. Trans-ference derives from the infinitive tense of trans-ferre while  translation derives from  its past participle. In the Italian Standard Edition of   Freud’s works the term  transference  is still   rendered with the now outdated word  of “traslazione”, so evidently coincident with the English  "translation". Nowadays in Italian we follow the French choice, akin to the Anglo-Saxon one, and we speak of  “transfert”.
I believe this coincidence of etymology is also expressive of what happens at a  deep level in the functioning of the mind of the translator, who operates on his text in a sort of state of transference.
No translation  can be  the result of an automatic correspondence between the  language of the source text and that of arrival, but it is always the fruit of a reinterpretation  of the original text, thus necessarily including an  idiosyncratic work. In Bionian terms we could say that the translator puts at work his capacity of reverie, of dreaming the text he has to translate.

How much do the translations of our Annuals adhere to the original   and how much do they deviate? This is  particularly important as many IJP papers have not been written originally in English and so when they reach the Italian final version in the Italian Annuals they have gone through at least two perilous  passages of translation.
Do you remember the telephone game? Most of you probably played it as  children. You would whisper a short sentence into someone’s ear, and they would then turn and whisper it to the person seated on their other side. By the time the message had passed through a dozen people it was so different from the original it had everyone giggling hysterically.
I had the idea of individuating a short English  text, translating it into Italian  and getting it translated back into English and then again into Italian and back to English four times and watching the results. All translations were provided by colleagues who are mother tongue in the language of arrival and very well acquainted with the source language when not bilingual.
I chose a  quotation from Bion’s Cogitations, a slightly criptical text but, curiously, strictly close to the topic of writing in psychoanalysis:
…I cannot have as much confidence in my ability to tell the reader what has happened as I have in my ability to do something to the reader  that I have had done to me. I have had an emotional experience I have confidence in my ability to recreate that emotional experience, but not to represent it (Bion, Cogitations, 1992, p. 219).
And this is the first back translation:
 …I cannot confide in my capacity to tell the reader what did happen as much as I confide in my capacity to put the reader through what I have been put through. I have had an emotional experience: I feel that I can trust my capacity to re-create that emotional experience, whilst I do not believe I can represent it. 
My first impression is that  the new text is somehow clearer  than the original  one: the translator has driven the obscure passages towards a new light, although keeping a strict adherence to the original. At the same time some  subtle deviations have been made. The first is the use of  rendering with “go through” and “put through”  Bion’s peculiar form of   passivity of “doing” something to someone or being the object of this doing.

The other  deviation is the use of “capacity” instead of “ability”.  Ability is a more positive quality or attainment than is capacity . A person may or may not have the capacity to learn singing : after study and practice he may or may not have the ability to sing.
So both these choices seem to go in the same direction. They create a new representation of  the original text, humanizing it somewhat. Bion is well known for his capacity of inducing in the reader unbearable states of mind and some of his texts are hardly “understandable”. Bion thought that they essentially had to be experienced and one had to face the sense of not understanding as for instance in Memory of the future. The most “psychotic” aspects of the text are here rendered in a “healthier” and more digested  way thus conveying in the translation   a sense of augmented immediacy.
The further Italian translation brings in two slight modifications: the translator introduces ex novo an adverb writing of what   has “really” happened in the analyst and – second modification – instead of saying “to do something to the reader” uses literally the expression  “to put  in communication the reader with what I have been felt in communication with”   (“mettere in comunicazione il lettore   con ciò con cui mi son sentito in comunicazione”). These two changes seem to unveil the need of the translator  that the communication  gets “really” placed. 
So here comes the  second and last back version: 
…I cannot trust my capacity to tell the reader what is really happening in the same way as I trust my ability to communicate to the reader that which I feel mostly in contact with. I have had an emotional experience: I feel that I can trust  my capacity to  recreate that emotional experience, while I do not believe I am able to represent it.
Interestingly enough in this version there is a return to Bion’s language: the term capacity is now more adherently retranslated as ability, like in Bion. And the expression of putting into communication  is now rendered as “to be  in contact”, a typical Bionian set of words. Maybe we are  in the presence  of an unconscious resonance and identification  with some qualities of Bion’s text and of  Bion as a therapist of psychotic patients.
The  good translator  is asked to get in good empathy with his text and to dream it somewhat, a bit as it happens in our work with patients.  But what are the difficulties on this way, particularly true when translating psychoanalytic texts?
1)   I think that  the first consideration is that the translator is asked to work  without memory and desire. There is the risk of  applying  the language  and the concepts of  one’s own theoretical  frame of reference to all authors.  This is by the way  an interesting  matter, also true in literature: a criterion of distinction for novelists  lies in their ability to give to each different character  a language of their own.  For instance   a Winnicottian    translator may render a Bionian text by means  of his own way of  seeing the psychoanalytic scene, a bit as in the example seen before.
2)   The translator   has also to resist the temptation to add or enlarge the text on the basis of his own interpretation.  If he falls prey to it – although done for the good – a deviation and a loss of  meaning may  come as a result, as I believe is a bit the case in the first back translation. The increased clarity of the text  comes with a subtle  reduction  of the concrete and somewhat psychotic-like experience of the “difficult” original text.
3)    At the same time the translator is asked to deal with an interplay between continuity and change. In fact an opening  up of the language of arrival  with new expressions is also sometimes required. I don’t see the changes necessarily only as  betrayals, but also as a necessity. The idea  of a strict correspondence  is utopian as two sets of languages are never exactly alike. Languages are ways of describing the world and there are many different ways to do it. Even when there is a strict name to indicate correspondence there is no correspondence of meaning. Let’s take the example of the English word “bread” and of the French word “pain”: they clearly mean the same,  but they are not understood the same way….. the English loaf  tastes differently from the   French baguette….Some other times behind a word in one language there are more possible translations  in the language of arrival. This could be the case of  the  translation of  the German word  Angst in Italian (but I believe the same happens with English). Angst renders and condenses in one word at least three different meanings that are: a) fear, b) anxiety and c) anguish. There is a large spectrum of meaning in Italian and English from  fear to anguish, with a progressive increase  of   intensity. Interestingly enough  the German “Kastrationangst" in Italian becomes “angoscia di castrazione”, corresponding to the English “castration anguish”  but in English “castration anxiety” is a much more appropriate rendering of the expression   (and softer than in Italian). So the choice of rendering  (and understanding) a  translation depends on our way of thinking about the problem, also as a collective and “national”  way of thinking. 
4)   Nowadays internationally much of  the  knowledge makes its way through the English language. Many times not being able to speak English results  in the impossibility to have access to the frontiers of knowledge.  Or, putting it  more radically,  not speaking English may   result in being almost illiterate. This is at the same time an advantage and a problem. Adopting a common linguistic ground  facilitates  the  exchanges of communication, something  more and more needed.  But at the same time we miss  something and the Annuals I believe are working so as  to overcome  this. Losing other languages we lose  a number of poetic nuances. Each word is a world of meanings.