By Alessandro Zignani
Translation by Robert Burchill

Preliminary definitions

a. The concept of "field"

The path leading from perception to sensation, and thence to conceptualization, is complex and for the most part remains a mystery. Ancient cultures made use of ideograms to express image and thought at one and the same time. The word "idea" derives from the Greek eidolon, which has to do with visualized images. Sight gives place to thought. Repeated images create expectations to which we attribute the value of substantial things by giving names. If value, as Max Weber suggests, is that which gives direction to hopes and dreams, then every linguistic culture is an organization of values influencing the discovery of the world. It follows that every language is the expression of a different way of understanding the world. This is not a philosophical question, given that it is the senses first and foremost which are involved. When Homer describes the sea as being the "colour of wine", he is not being poetic, but simply giving expression to the way his contemporaries perceived the effect produced by the reflection of the sun on the water. Similarly, a crystalline structure is one that evolves slowly as perceived by the human eye. To the Attic perception, the transparencies and translucencies of a Monet would appear uniform, black, violet...

But literary languages do not take shape only through the sensations and physiological characteristics of a people. Customs and usages are also an important factor. When, in the Song of Songs, the breasts of the beloved are likened to fawns, we cannot identify any erotic urge in the metaphor without first considering how, in the ancient nomadic civilizations, the main role of the women was to draw water and bring it to the village in jars which they would balance on their heads, so that the origin of this vision of beauty lies in the profile of the swaying breasts silhouetted against the horizon. Hence, the idea of envisaging a flock of fawns in the line of approaching women, with the youngest tending to drift off and then being brought back into line, and the notion of comparing the breasts of the beloved to such an image... these things take us along the path that distinguishes everyday language from literary language. Our vision of beauty on the other hand has its roots in Renaissance representations of the Virgin, set motionless against a stylized natural landscape, or in Raphaelite portraits, with those profiles delineated as margins interfacing the light of the incarnate with the relaxed serenity of far-off horizons.

This "dynamic" vision of beauty implies a perspective different to ours, in the theatre of the mind where life experiences determine how things are perceived. Another example: in a poem by the Chinese Li Po, a group of young people are depicted drinking and making merry in a pagoda. The idea (eidolon) would seem to be one of carefree abandon, were it not for the reflection of their images being drawn by the current of the river toward an inevitable demise... A stylized culture like that of the Chinese, all profiles, intent on outline rather than perspective, cannot help but see the truth as a shadow cast onto a wall. Chinese culture is the culture of the Sosie, the Double – the Other Self concealed behind the social mask imposed by Confucianism.

Likewise in the West, romanticism reflected the beginnings of an obsession with the idea of this Other Self as a revealer of hidden truths. In Heinrich Heine's famous poem Der Doppelganger, a traveller obsessed by the moon passes by the house where he had formerly known happiness in love. The light of the moon is reflected in a window, behind which the man sees himself as he once was. He experiences a deep jealousy as the moon casts his own shadow on the ground. Are we in the same "field" as Li Po? Not really. Here the truth of the Other Self is a shadow cast over time, rather than in space. On the other hand, there is a certain logic in finding the poetry of Li Po in The Chinese Flute, a Buddhist anthology compiled by the German Hans Bethge in the late nineteenth century.

Staying with things German, in the Nibelungslied, gold and purple symbolize the human desire for power, whilst the sword and the ash tree are symbols of liberation. In a culture where the social order was determined principally by Sippe, clans bound by feudal relationships, the gold of the crown was synonymous with civil war. The arrival of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire would turn this whole symbolic framework upside down. Changing the field, in our eyes. In effect, we find in the Baroque period – the necessary transition to "modern" civilization – that gold and purple have come to symbolize the redeeming power of Faith. Similarly, at the height of the Mediaeval era when relations between the sexes were conditioned by a totally rigid class structure and erotic passion was necessarily adulterous, the "dramaturgy" of the dawn is a representation of death, not resurrection. The late Middle Ages show us a culture of Night, albeit the separation of light and darkness has not yet become representative of the struggle between good and evil. A secular" culture, as it were. And, following a historical hiatus, it was another German, Richard Wagner, who took up the threads and wove another panel into the tapestry when in Tristan and Isolde he used the nocturnal duet of the lovers to define a moment in which life triumphs over the masks of social pretence – masks of the daytime. We have seen it already in Heine: Romanticism, reaching out toward alien and/or ancient cultures in an attempt to recapture a secular dimension to human existence.

So what significance has all this, in practice, for the translator of literary texts?

First and foremost an awareness of the prejudices, the original perspectives, the symbologies, indeed the "cultures" on which the powers of imagination are to be exercised, and on which any judgement of the source text is bound to depend. This judgement is necessarily an a prioriconception. A personal "field" of observation in and with which the translator's own experiences are also placed, stored and interconnected.

And what is this thing we are referring to as "field"? An assemblage of parameters relating to perspective, formulated from perceptive data attributable to the physiological constitution, the cultural learning, the emotional temperament and the life experience of the individual translator. Every "field" has collective and individual elements. Each is unique and incompatible with others, charged with a mixture of allusions, evocations and references to an inner world that is by its very nature untranslatable.

b. Literary language as foreshortening

Everyday language differs from the language of letters in the nature of the "vision" it conveys. In everyday language, the vision is objective, and in literary language, subjective – which means that in literature, greater importance attaches to the implications and suggestions of the words than to what actually is said. Intention has precedence over expression. The desire to be challenged, so to speak, is stronger than the search for clarity. Effectiveness is achieved in redundancy, in the aura created around the text. In literature, sense is significance.

What is foreshortening?

Going into a gothic cathedral, the profusion of side chapels, arches, columns and windows give the impression of plurality, creating as many cathedrals – identical in design, though differing in structure – as the standpoints taken up by the observer. The gothic cathedral seeks to transform time into space. To suggest an escape from the temporal, even as human life is destined ultimately to enter the serene uniformity of the City of God. The essential purpose of foreshortening, therefore, is that it should stylize the fundamental elements of the subject matter so that they can be freely recombined and juxtaposed. If we consider our individual and collective memory as the space encompassed by a cathedral, we will at once be in the dimension that best reflects an ideal psychology for the translator.


In effect, this is a process that underlies any creative enterprise in literature.

The most emblematic example is that gothic cathedral of words erected by Proust in his Recherche, where the selfsame objects described – bell-towers, seascapes, curtains, faces, discourses – all take on new meanings according to the connections in space that the memory establishes between them, starting from two initial points of view: du cote de chez Swann, du cote de chez Guermantes. Two roads, one leading to the home of the Swanns, the other to the home of the Guermantes. But it is around the divergence between these two areas of thought that the different points of view in the narrative are articulated. "Of our body, where incessant pleasures and many pains come together, we do not have a precise vision like that of a tree or of a house or of a passer-by";, writes Proust, who makes a theatre of the body, a stage on which to project events, like the Chinese shadows of Li Po.

Thus, the first quality of the foreshortened view is its density. The second is reversibility, whereby a detail formerly unremarkable in character can take on a revelatory significance. Thinking of The Pit and the Pendulum, by Edgar Allan Poe, the ticking that strikes the consciousness of the protagonist – the only sound perceived – has no significance at first on reawakening. Everything is in darkness. The fact that the ticking denotes the inexorable descent of a chopper is understood only as the character becomes conscious of the situation. In retrospect, accordingly, we come to see that Death is the sound of time, and the ticking takes on the expressive and deceptive force of a metaphysical symbol, though without in any way losing its graphic and sensory impact. In Poe's tale, we discover the external space from within the conscious of the protagonist.

The third quality of foreshortening is that it is related to a point of view.

c. Subjectivity and objectivity of literary language

In his Tolstoy and Dostojevsky, Mereskovski advances the theory of a primary difference in approach between points of view. There are narrators who live the scene from within the person of the protagonist, and narrators who describe emotions and states of mind by visualizing them through the person's modes of dress, gesticulation and expression. The two Russian writers in question are archetypes of these two methods, which the translator must know how to distinguish if the poetical differences implicit in the two techniques are not to be spoiled by confusing one with the other. To describe the last night of a condemned man, we might put ourselves in the mind of the individual, relating that only now he understands the destiny marked out for him, reflecting how nature continues on remorselessly, indifferent to individuals, perhaps recalling the figure of some philosopher friend, a token anarchist who had influenced his life and way of thinking (a kind of suicide prompted by niezschean philosophy, or who knows what), or we might ponder the shadows of the trees cast on the wall of the cell, likening them to the hands of the executioner about to carry off another victim. In the first instance, one has the notion principally of narration as a "cultural" code, gaining substance with the number of relations it is able to establish with the world of ideas that give shape to a people and a civilization; and in the second, the conception of life as changeable, a thing of which the significance is impossible to grasp and which cannot be reduced to a system.

This is a question subtending the entire history of literature, and illustrated to advantage in Moby Dick, given that when Melville describes the hunt for the great white whale, he is perhaps speaking not so much of a mammal roaming the ocean, but rather of the meaning of life itself. Together with Melville, Conrad, Flaubert, Hemingway and Camus are perfect examples of the "objective" persuasion, whereas Thomas Mann, Henry James and Sartre belong to the "subjective". Generally speaking, objectivity is found more in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and hardly ever in the middle-european (with the notable exceptions of Doeblin and Schnitzler).

This distinction might also be rationalized as the contrast between "denotation" and "connotation". Writers who describe, and writers who comment. The interesting aspect of the problem for the translator concerns the nature of the language. In effect, a language like English tends naturally to denote, whereas Germanic languages tend more toward connotation, based as they are on subordinating conjunctions, on a reduction of temporal distinctions to spatial distinctions, and on a tendency to articulate "hierarchically"; within single structures of expression.

English is an idiom spawned by a daily intercourse between migrant peoples faced with the necessity for a means of communication that would enable them to perform countless tasks and satisfy innumerable needs from day to day. What emerged indeed was an "idiolect", developing primarily as a vehicle for legal and business transactions. German on the other hand came in a rush from the genius of Luther, confined out of necessity to the castle of Warburg after being exiled by Rome, as he set about translating the Bible. Hence the logic and analytical structure of the language, as if cast in a mould.

As for French and Italian, these are the sum of various idiolects originating from different sectors – the language of the court and of the curia, of noblemen and craftsmen, of cosmopolitan artists – given rules and structures determined by special academies to ensure a "monumental" character, albeit the pedigree has been bought at a price, since these are languages with a limited flexibility of expression.

From whatever angle one approaches literary translation, these distinctions have first to be recognized and understood.

PART ONE: The principles of language in the human consciousness
Literary language as the expression of national cultures

a) Semantics and psychology

The origin of nation states can be traced largely through the consolidation of linguistic families having homogeneous characteristics, along territorial and racial lines. The notions of "State" and "Nation" are not interchangeable: the one is a political entity, the other a cultural entity. A "culture" is defined linguistically as an assemblage of religious, linguistic, mythological, sociological and artistic codes coming together as parts of a "tradition", knowledge of which is absorbed by the consciousness of the individual in the process of growing up and being educated. Melanie Klein speaks of the "introjection of models", underlining the mimetic nature of this learning process. The "classics" are nothing other than the works regarded commonly as paradigms of these models, and therefore imitated more frequently.

Like temple ruins, artefacts and myths, words are no less "historical monuments" of national cultures, given that they preserve traces of vanished customs and traditions and – more importantly – through their shape and semantics they reveal the psychology with which every culture, in its own peculiar way, sees the outside world. In German, for example, words used to indicate abstract concepts end in -heit and -keit, the former relating to a collection of concrete objects, a "category" of the material, and the latter to something intangible, a "category" of the spiritual. In short, one of the ways in which thought is articulated: Ewigkeit, for example, meaning Eternity... The German language tends to conceive the world in categories a priori; it is in Kant that one sees the culmination of this, as it were, abstractive ascensional perspective, exploring and at the same time reflecting on its own nature. In German, therefore, greater attention is given to the position of the individual in space and time than to bodily qualities, to attributes perceived through the senses. Colours in German are perceived on the basis of their capacity to reflect light, and not of mutual contrast as in French. The German blau is a deep and transparent colour, not a nocturnal colour. Blue in English is associated with the soul, a colour that can serve as the very symbol of meditative and melancholic introspection. Indeed in English any abstract category is the fruit of perception, and traceable back to an original insight. If Kant is the "national" philosopher in the German language, then Hume is his counterpart in English. It is no accident that Poe, in The Raven, conveys the idea of eternity by conscious repetition of the word Nevermore. In French, every character is seen in relation to a different character. Everything is, so to speak, d'après or selon. Subjectivity of interpretation is the only perceptive category possible. When Proust begins his Recherche - "longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure", what interests him is the level of attraction and repulsion, semantically, between longtemps and de bonne heure: a paradoxical combination which in the dialectical and "dramatic" sense effectively precludes the possibility of slumber; and indeed the whole idea of the Recherche is inextricably linked with this insomnia.

b) The problem of tradition

Every language subtends a tradition. The game of recovering, alluding and parodying indulged in by a writer tends invariably to appear as shadows cast on the elastic skin of the language. Accordingly, translators need first of all to be historians of their languages – their own languages and the languages from which they translate. Hovering around every writer there will be a crowd of alter egos, examples and models from which he or she borrows in order, perhaps by some Freudian process, to "kill fathers". Just so, in Ulysses, Joyce has Stephen Dedalus sustain the hypothesis that in Hamlet Shakespeare projects some kind of death wish onto his own father...To ensure, using an image from Plato, that the shadows of the past cast onto the cave wall of literary time do not become the ghosts of real time, the translator must be fully conversant with the various linguistic "levels" of both the source and the target language. To this end, a fundamental distinction must be made between different "national" languages. There are inclusive languages and exclusive languages, and a given language will fit into one of these categories only insofar as allowed by the relationship between this same language and the stock from which it originates. In relation to the Saxon language, for example, English is inclusive and German exclusive. In the case of English, the syntactical structures make up a code emerging as an alternative to the neo-latin model, whereas in the case of German it is Latin style articulations that provide the material used to construct the meaning. In English, consequently, it is everyday language that gives shape to literary language whilst in German, as in Italian, the opposite is true. This explains the fact that in English writing, exception and transgression are features of literary style, whereas in German, apart from a few shining examples (Jean Paul, Hoffmann, Kafka) this is not the case. A translator therefore needs to understand what in each language is "the norm" and what is "artifice", remembering that art, semantically speaking, is always artifice. Exclusive languages tend to see archaisms as certifying linguistic nobility. The Saxon elements surfacing in modern German always take on connotations of nobility, victory, heroism – generally romantic to a greater or lesser degree. In Italian the opposite occurs, and this will be confirmed readily by anyone familiar with the farces of Giulio Cesare Croce, creator of Bertoldo, or anyone who has read Tassoni's Secchia Rapita... And the rule is confirmed in English too: Tristram Shandy, for example, is a web of parodies on the classicist models of Elizabethan tragedy, which the author Sterne saw as an elaborate and pompous dressing-up of pure Englishness.

This is the aspect of translation which – being the most mundane – is the most laborious: reading, reflecting, and building up an index of terms, an archive of semantic registers, and matching the expressions found in different languages. An archaism used, say, by Gadda, a writer given to Dantesque turns of phrase, must be matched in the target language with an archaism that is either similarly evocative or has the same distortion of meaning. A useful exercise in the case of English is to take the chapter of Ulysses in which Joyce recites the entire history of the English language, from Chaucer to himself as Dedalus, in a verbal image of the library where the action takes place. To translate this chapter into Italian, one would need to start with the Sicilian poets and work through to the semantic experiments of, say, a Sanguinetti (Laborynthus). There are shortcuts available nonetheless. In effect, every narrative experience is by nature an archetypal experience. That is to say, one can find thematic affinities and analogies of intent common to different cultures. The case of Stefano d'Arrigo in post-war Italy closely resembles that of later Joyce. Horyncus Orca is a metanovel in which archaisms, regional idiolects, technicalisms, burlesque parodies and overlayered registers are jumbled together and "redeemed" as modes of expression in the same way as attempted by Joyce in Finnegan's Wake. Accordingly, d'Arrigo can provide the key to unlock the impossible puzzle posed by the late work of Joyce. In the same way, the ironic and autoreferential syntax used by Macchiavelli in Belfagor and Clizia, or the "heroically frenzied" style of Giordano Bruno's writing will provide invaluable guidelines for anyone translating Marlowe's Faust into Italian.

c) The "plastic" tradition

We find another important distinction between national linguistic cultures in the concept of "canons". There are cultures apparently convinced that their national linguistic identity must be shaped by a "theology of models", and cultures in which transgression of the canon is the statutory poetic element. This contrast cannot easily be systematized. Take the French model, for example, with Boileau the arbiter of the Beautiful, and Racine with his tragedies compiling a veritable "liturgy" of arguments sustaining that language should remain impermeable to the distractions of sentiment. The inevitable consequence is that one has had a proliferation of subversive movements, and schools of disobedience, tending to characterize the evolution of French literature: from de Sade to Lautrémont, through Nerval and Baudelaire, then Mallarmé, Breton, and so on... But transgression signifies the existence of an accepted standard, and translators must know the standards if they are to avoid superimposing their own creative urges over the purely imitative, "acting" skills that the process of translation involves. Thus, anyone wanting to translate Verlaine must necessarily know something about the Parnassians in order to recognize and understand the codes parenthesized by the poet in pursuing his personal aesthetic revolution. Similarly, to translate Jean Paul one needs to be fully conversant with the jargon of notaries, theologians and practitioners of the law, permanent victims of that sharp irony employed by the German writer with the controversially French name. For Heine, the translator must explore the Volkslied, those lengthy ballads which conjure up the pietistic Germany of the Rhine. The stone to overturn for clues in this instance will be Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the collection of popular poetry compiled by Brentano and von Armin.

The problem is the same for theatre: in the Elizabethan masque one has a tradition based on a fusion of words and music, with prosodists adopting metres and rhythms in which devices such as the play on words and the nonsense lyric are taken to the limit. In Germany on the other hand, the prevailing form is the Puppenspiel: the puppet theatre, dominant since the Baroque era; consequently, the linguistic context reflects an experimentalism involving the exploration of many and various idiolects, often as a vehicle for caricature. Lessing would attempt to restore order to the situation, but Goethe's Urfaust with its cheerful linguistic anarchy shows how, for a German writer, the approach to drama could be one of drinking anew from the untainted springs of nature. In France, by contrast, the theatre is courtly, academic, with linguistic connotations centred on the tradition of lively debate, propositions, and the conversation of amorous intrigue – a language characterized by elision: that whole ritual whereby words serve as status symbols and at the same time as instruments of consensus, a ritual parodied by Molière in his Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Along with the problems relating to differences between national traditions, one has the problem of codes in an overall sense. Not even punctuation marks are subject to universal rules. The translator taking on Nietzsche comes up against a whole system of "unwritten" language, a proliferation of abstruse indications that include double dashes, and single words stranded between full stops, or left as if to vibrate between two sets of suspension periods... Another example: in translations of Kafka, the short and figurative sentences of the original are often merged to produce a more fluid and "neo-latin" form, perhaps on the basis that the German used by the praguian Kafka was not a living language but a jumble of bookish substrata. True enough, but Kafka gives expression to that power which is the history of language: the high-sounding tones of "sublime" utterance are bent to serve the purposes of caricature, "concealed by too much light", that produces the sulphurous aftertaste of his prose. Kafka's punctuation includes commas placed to interrupt the continuity of his prosody, and semicolons that introduce no new clauses but leave inert descriptions of enclosed places hanging in the air: devices used as if colours by a painter, or rests by a composer, a medium for countless moods and figures employed in connotation which – if we acknowledge that literature is the art of the unsaid – is far more important than denotation. Now, given that German had its origins in the translation of the Bible, undertaken by Luther while hidden away in the castle of Warburg to escape being burned as a heretic, it is clear enough that this sententiously economical procedure adopted by Kafka is designed, as Luther would have it, to "paint the devil on the wall"... Hemingway too, in The Old Man and the Sea, plays with the style of biblical sayings, suspended out of time, using caesurae and scansions in such a way that punctuation marks become tone colours, like the voices of organ pipes. The level of connotation is altogether different, however. In this instance we are presented with an Ethical notion – the Calvinistic idea of sacrifice, in the contact between hands and hard matter as conduit to a state of grace – and at the same time with an Aesthetic notion of the sea as a mother gathering up tears and redeeming them from their insignificance, quite the opposite of that Gnostic challenge directed at God-the-Father by Kafka.

In short, every page of literature is a score, denoted according to the conventions of national language. The process of transposing autoreferential signs from one linguistic system to another is exegesis, at once the premiss and consequence of every interpretation. In the next chapter we will look at the opposing ways in which inclusive and exclusive languages respond to foreign cultures and their creations, indeed to what Spengler would call the different quality of "culture" and "civilization".

2. Culture and civilization: original elements and foreign assimilations in the historical progress of languages

a) The question of sources

The utilization of source material is the criterion on which one defines the concept of literature. At the root of it all lies the notion of exoticism. Montesquieu's Persian Letters are based on the idea of the 'other' culture as mirroring one's own. Similarly, the way that Shakespeare reuses a tale by Bandello in his Romeo and Juliet shows how a creative genius can make 'improper' use of cultural models. The genius is not concerned with philological correctness but constructs a text as if it were an orchestration, and in the economy of a musical score what matters is the progression toward the climax. In this light, the translator's knowledge of sources anterior to the creation of a masterpiece is of little advantage. Rather, what will be worth knowing is what happens later, as the work reappears in modern parodies. Joyce's Ulysses tells us much more about the way the Odyssey is received nowadays than we can learn from any philological commentary. In Ulysses, Homer becomes a map on which to find one's bearings in the topography of the modern city. When Walter Benjamin wrote monographs in the nineteen twenties on cities like Paris and Vienna, delineating their nature as places of remembrance for 'canonical' writers, he accomplished something far more useful, for a writer, than any scholarly work of exposition.

So, one has to discover the 'foreign' elements in national cultures in order to learn the rules of the game. The ultimate example is that of Don Quixote: the library full of books about chivalry, on which Cervantes expounds at the start of the novel – one of the many starts – establishes the coordinates by which to distinguish the 'grotesque' from the 'lyrical', representing an impossible synthesis between the dreams of the old hidalgo and the reality against which he finds himself in combat. For a translator, it will be a case of having successfully assimilated the gossamer voicings of Petrarch, without which it would be impossible to render Dulcinea, or captured the sense of caricature used by Horace in the Satires to succeed in distilling the hallowed ground of chivalry into that comical spectacle of the knightly vigil at the inn. But there are many more registers than these in Don Quixote: there is the curial language of the Jesuit preachers, derived from Saint John of the Cross and Saint Dominic, the rowdy tone of the picaresque novel, ideal for the portrayal of good-for-nothing rascals (modelled on Plautus), the parody of Arcadia with its syrupy turns of phrase recalling Achillini and the Marinists, and so forth. In the most drastic of assessments, there is almost nothing 'original' in Don Quixote, just as in Shakespeare's fairy tales it is an invisible Ovid who serenely directs the game of turning men into beasts, and beasts into men...

Any notion of a 'national school' associated with the Republic of Translators must be received with suspicion.

Similarly, relations between the arts mirror different varieties of logic from nation to nation. In Elizabethan England poetry proceeds from music: the Masque, with its blend of rhythm and prosody, is itself the shaper of those ready-made formulae whereby Myth comes down to Earth and the forests of Britain are peopled with nymphs. Blank verse uses an interplay of assonances and homoeoteleutons in which the effect of redundancy is based on variants of the semantic roots. In other words, British poetry – classicist like no other – takes up the latin conception of language as a perpetual semantic variation, rather than organizing the argument employing the artful strategy of burdens and symmetrical reiterations that characterize the Italian poetic tradition. And yet, the origin both of Shakespeare and of, say, Poliziano, is in Virgil and Ovid. In Poliziano however, classic models are mediated by Lorenzo Valla and by the grammatical categories of the humanists, whereas in English the 'monumental'aspect of the latin language, defined by Cicero as its concinnitas ('density') has come through unaffected.

b) In search of roots

The latin roots of the Holy Roman Empire represent that uniformity of codes, in Mediaeval Europe, without which the emergence of Latin as the 'official' language of culture from the 15th Century to the 18th would be inconceivable. In like manner, the Troubadours' poetic image of the donna angelicata provides the pivot on which metaphors of the Soul would come to hinge in premodern cultures, with all their particular symbology of mirrors, ghostly doubles and wayfarers. Languages too have their place in this tradition.

In Europe there are diurnal languages and nocturnal languages. The former incline toward objectivity, the latter toward subjectivity. Diurnal languages are generated in federalistic milieux characterized by interaction between national cultures. They are languages of 'civilization'. Nocturnal languages are solidly nationalistic. They are languages of 'culture'. Diurnal languages have as their substratum the codes of legal and mercantile expression. Anyone engaged in decoding neo-latin languages should start from the Pandette di Giustiniano: the first organic collection of laws common to the latin world. It would then become clear how in diurnal languages the fundamental element is the nexus between subject and object, whilst the complement serves to 'set the scene' in which the interaction is placed. Quite the opposite applies in nocturnal languages, where the notion of 'complement' simply does not exist, unless as an indicator of 'manner'; in this sense, 'how' is more important than 'what' in nocturnal languages. In German, wenn suggests the outcome of an action, stemming from fulfilment of the conditions which determined the reasons or justifications for the action. So, wenn is neither 'when' nor 'whenever'. Neither temporal nor causal. If anything, it conveys the idea that time has a logic all its own, running its course outside of our control. By contrast, weil indicates a chronological succession of events unfolding inexorably to produce an inescapable result (a destiny? In German, the tragic hero is always begotten of a weil).

If, adopting a well-established metaphor, we understand the light of day as a symbol of enlightening Reason and the shadows of night as expressing the culture of the Other Self, it will be clear that the neo-latin languages are languages of the daytime, and the broad body of those originating from Saxon and Germanic stock are languages of the night-time. Or in short: the former are languages of denotation, the latter of connotation. Or again: the one type of language gives importance to the 'what', as defined by hierarchical reference, and the other to the 'how', as defined by the psychological oscillations of the Ego.

Underlying this divisive dichotomy there is a historical process. Neo-latin languages derive from the assimilation of Greek culture bedded in a legal and commercial language that had two characteristics: 1) it was a product of artificial synthesis, built on a system of academic rules; 2) it reflected the needs of coexistence and the emergence of a life involving relations between different cultures and languages. Ductility therefore, or what we might better refer to as anthropocentricity, was not the special feature of Latin. Greek on the other hand was the language used by a modest city of fourteen thousand inhabitants – the Athens of the fourth century – which grew from a dialectic structuring of attitudes particular to the various arts and professions (including Philosophy and the Theatre). In Greek, then, one has the aorist, precursor of the German preterit and the English present continuous, which before being English was Saxon. In aoristic expression, what matters is the result: that circumstance whereby if event A does not come about, then event B cannot even be contemplated (Aristotle's tertium non datur...). In Latin, by contrast, the organization of meaning is never logical, but always spatiotemporal and therefore hierarchical. In nocturnal languages, the concept of 'near' and 'remote' as denotative of tense, of chronological sequence, does not even exist.

In the broad sense, diurnal languages could be considered Copernican, and nocturnal languages Ptolemaic. In the first, it is meaning that gives voice to the universe of language; in the second it is sense: indistinct, subjective, not reducible to any linguistic hierarchy. In short: diurnal languages are centripetal, nocturnal languages centrifugal.

c) Acquisition strategies

The strategies adopted in national languages when addressing foreign traditions are essentially four in number:


1) Inclusion

The canonical example is provided by French, in which every foreign model is rendered applying the grammatical and cultural codes of the target language. Every French language specialist should get to know the translation of Goethe's Faust attempted by Gérard de Nerval. Here, the philosophical content of the text has been distilled into pure lyrical form. Unheimlich becomes étonnant. Mikrokosmos is le ciel infini. Everything is experienced through contemplation, rather than conception. Italian too has an inclusive approach. In Italian, the apodictic phraseology of Kafka becomes an organization of subordinates. One enlightening case is that of the Greek Lyric Poets as translated by Salvatore Quasimodo, who handles the subjectless sayings of Archilochus by adding the interjections "tu dici" (thou sayest), "così è il tuo dire" (so sayest thou). Similarly, Pavese's translation of Moby Dick reflects an approach of the same type, given the 'dramaturgical' way in which the translator renders the references to the Psalms, and to biblical sayings in general, which in his hands become visual metaphors.


2) Allusion

In certain cultures characterized by the struggle to achieve a recognizable national identity, use is made of foreign stylistic conventions to mark the introduction of a parody or the definition of particular historical and social contexts. In Russian literature, there is Tolstoy's instructive device of employing French dialogue in War and Peace to illustrate the isolation of the Russian nobility from that European revolution in which the story of Napoleon was unfolding with such shattering force. In Dostoevsky's Idiot, Polish is the language used to convey marginalization and diversity. The way Nastasia Filippovna makes fun of the Poles, imitating their way of speech, is a mark of her mean-mindedness. Likewise in The Inspector General, Gogol uses the dialects of provincial Russia as theatrical sets affording backdrops on which the bureaucratization of the System casts its sinister shadows. In German, the introduction of foreign expressions takes on a parodistic aspect. Jean Paul's parodying of the Latin used by lawyers and notaries, in the spirited testaments of the Flegejare, has a connotation at once sinister and merry. Heine has the Devil speak in eight-line rhyming stanzas – an Italian Humanist. In the case of 'peripheral' writers like Mörike or Keller, by contrast, foreign language interpolations become the utterances of indolent poets and drifters enlightened by some long-lost popular wisdom. Mozart on the Way to Prague and Spiegel the Cat (the Keller original) are 'submerged' works of great importance in this regard.


3) Integration

This is a somewhat rare circumstance occurring between allotropic languages, whereas borrowing from a language of the same stock is a common occurrence. Nonetheless, the practice of borrowing in this context is typified by a tendency to convey clearly definable distinctions. In Italian, for example, the French expressions arriére-pensée and cul de sac are used to indicate states of mind rather than objective situations, as in the original tongue, whereas in neo-latin languages anglicisms are subsumed with the intent, generally, of characterizing mass movements and psychological situations (such as melting-pot or background). In the opposite direction, the familiar Italian expressions used by composers of music are used to depict the spirit, or character, of an event (a crescendo of excitement, agitation, protest... or Presto con Fuoco indicating high passion). Whilst in Slavic languages one finds only autoreference to lexical variants of the same semantic root, in languages other than neo-latin this type of occurrence is unknown. In literary translation a foreign term will be left as it is, unless it happens to be in the translator's own language, in which case the translator will look for a different foreign expression providing the same characterization.


4) Rhetorical emphasis

In Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus, the guest called up by the protagonist Adrian Leverkühn, hallucinating in a syphilis-induced fever, assumes different national masks one after the other: from a Luther speaking counter-reformation Saxon to a French impresario whose only language is the jargon of vaudeville. Similarly, in Pasticciaccio by Gadda, the Roman and Venetian dialects become conduits for 'philosophical' conclusions (the gloomy thoughts of Inspector Ingravallo) on the intentionally inconsistent aspects of the case. This way of intensifying the 'rhetorical accent' of a character or of a situation by using foreign technicalisms reaches its zenith in the language of criticism and formal analysis. Terms like plot, pattern, cluster, in Literature, ground bass, Urlinie, continuo, in Music, or feedback and spin in Physics – to mention just a few examples – show how every national language, for reasons connected with historical contingencies or with the circulation of ideas, is able to dissociate itself in given disciplines from the normal context of will and sentiment and adopt 'neutral' modes of description, explanatory and denotative, serving to underscore the intended meaning when addressing different art fields. In Literature, this 'meta-language' can sometimes be the vehicle for exercises in alienation and parody (another example, in addition to those already mentioned, would be the linguistic melting-pot of a writer such as Sanguineti, who employs terms from Physics and Mathematics alongside archaisms and neologisms).

3. National languages as visions of the world: the theories of psycholinguistics

a) The conative function

The interpretation of language is a function of recognition. It was Noam Chomsky who theorized on the innate character of linguistic structures in the human consciousness. The corollary to his theory is the absolute 'permeability' of linguistic codes, predicated on the basis of a conative intention that underpins sign language. Any sign, be it written, visual, audible, is a sign of expression. Given the universality of these signs, in terms of meaning, one need only extract – as it were – the quintessence of their historical and cultural concretions to develop a fundamental grammar that will serve as an interface not only between national languages but also between different linguistic codes. According to Jacques Derrida, communication is a conative act tending to disunite, whereby the ego seeks to break down the 'monumental' nature of language. For Michel Foucault it is an act of transgression, an attempt ('conation') to shift the boundaries of what is permissible. For Roland Barthes, it is an erotic impulse of which the appeal passes through seductiveness, an effect of the aesthetic aura that words generate around themselves. In his Dialectical Reason Sartre reworks the phenomenology of Husserl and the ideas of Heidegger on Being as a state of consciousness defined by the parameter of 'time' in a philosophy of language where the written sign is a 'projection of interior experience', a theatrical strategy whereby words lodge themselves in the conscious according to social rituals, to the spaces through which all individuals carry on their relationships with the world at large. The poetry of Mallarmé, with his programmatic blank page, marks the limit of this breakdown from semantic density to aphasia

Many will be familiar with Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, in which an inconsequential occurrence is related in ninety nine different ways, adopting different standpoints, parodies of style, uses of metaphor and sensorial visions, also the coded languages of music and mathematics. According to Wittgenstein, language attests only to its own self – a theory which here celebrates its own carnivalesque demise. Queneau, himself a mathematician, addresses all of the problems concerning the relationship between expression and meaning discussed up to this point, and distils them into pure narrative pleasure.

b) From ideas to words

Neuropsychology studies the way in which the objectivity of perception is altered by the characteristics of the human consciousness: the processes whereby the mind, when observing something, in reality perceives its own self in the act of observing something. Language has always been one of the loci sacri of neuropsychology, ever since Piaget and Laborit began to draw a parallel between a child's comprehension of the world outside and an ability to establish subordinative links in discourse. According to their theory, a child three years of age sees every name, or noun, as associated with a reward: the magic word with which wishes are fulfilled. Picking up on what was said previously, we might try this formula: for a child of three, the first level of language is the ritual; at this level, the primary code is the conative, whereas the function of expression is the driving force of desire. The word riverrun with which Joyce ends Finnegan's Wake falls into this system of variables. Anyone attempting to translate that verbal enigma which is late Joyce, without being resigned to dirtying their hands with soil as would a child playing with creation, has no chance whatever of getting it right.

The next step in the formation of linguistic consciousness is the appropriation of territory. Finno-Ugric languages see linguistic territory as space, as a system of relations between co-presences, rather than the chronological sequence typical of neo-latin languages. The fixity of the weather, the unfailing alternation of the seasons with their unchanging moods characteristic of the Finnish climate' doubtless these have had their effect on the genesis of Finnic language, with its tendency to group terms together by assonance, to create unadulterable linguistic stocks that seem to recall both the sacred ancient oaks and the clan structure of the social fabric. Likewise Hungarian, a language in which the stem, the heart of the word, holds the connotation of every term, a language that can belong to the code of the emotional, or the scientific, or the legal, or whatever else; the way in which a Hungarian word conserves in its root the bond with tradition, yet having inflections that can be moulded to every kind of individual expressive feeling, seems bound up with the story of the people themselves, who have managed to preserve cultural roots intact throughout their history only by developing an increasingly subtle ductility in the face of so many foreign dominations. Hungarian belongs to that category of languages able to employ the behavioural tactics of certain microorganisms, which escape their enemies by assuming similar genetic traits.

An Italian scholar, Luciano Mecacci, has analyzed the way in which pictographic languages like Chinese and Japanese describe the world as an expression of ideas rather than of concepts. For a Chinese, an idea is an idea only if it can be depicted. A limit of no little consequence: if applied to the German language, there would be no more Nietzsche. The fact is that western languages are based on a principle of what one might call 'satisfying expectations'. Only if we know beforehand where the reasoning is likely to lead can we be certain of understanding what is written.

The popularity of Mishima in the West during the nineteen seventies stems from a misunderstanding. His suicide by seppuku during a television programme made him a heroic figure in the tortured western conscience. With that single act of thrusting a knife into his own stomach, performed by a man who in the aftermath of Hiroshima had recruited a private army of samurai in a bid to resist the penetration of American technological culture into Japanese life, a myth was created overnight. As it turns out, western translations of Misihima's novels have been taken largely from French versions. Musical instruments 'à cordes' are rendered slavishly as 'stringed' even in languages where the customary expression would be 'bowed'. And there is Pa Chin, Chinese author of Cold Nights, who in translation reads like Balzac. To Westerners, ideograms are a dead letter. According to Mecacci, the reason lies in the fact that for 'figurative' languages, a concept remains a concept by virtue of its being related to something else, not of its own self. In Chinese, terms like 'absolute', 'infinite' and 'immortality' are used as indeterminate extensions of the concepts of 'limit', 'time' and 'life': they amplify and enlarge as footnotes, on the fringe, but do not exist as 'concepts'. And besides, the nonsense against which Wittgenstein waged war all his life was precisely the fact that the most important concepts, in western languages, are those which mean nothing.

c) The paradox of the two hemispheres

One of the most brilliant neuropsychologists of our time, Oliver Sachs, dedicated an extraordinary work, Seeing Voices, to the language of the deaf. Among the deaf, one finds the paradox that every metalinguistic interpretation is reduced, for physiological reasons, to its purely conative and need-driven mode, the gesture. In the sixteenth century, the humanist Cesare Ripa published an Iconology, in which he drew parallels between the figurative archetypes of plastic art and translations in literary language intended to relate the emotions of the characters portrayed. Similarly, in the same period, Giovo published a Trattato delle Imprese Amorose e Guerresche which describes the psychological character of those mythological figures with which the Great and Good of the time decorated their seals. For the literary translator, knowledge of these two treatises will open up new ways to an understanding of the text: and this, one can never tire of repeating, implies the notion of an interrelation of terms within an enclosed space (theatre, in effect, as an ecosystem). To return to Sachs, his basic intuition, when studying the deaf, was that language is communicated by Signs, and that once these signs are activated in the consciousness they become Symbols, i.e. linguistic expressions decoded conventionally by a predetermined grammar. And straight away one is up against a paradox: how can a spontaneous form of expression like sign language be interpreted a priori according to a tradition generated by historical and cultural experiences? How can the universal objectivity of impulse become expressive subjectivity?

Some readers will have asked themselves why translators are so fascinated by music. The first reason is that, in Music, all is Symbolic ("Everything impermanent is but a symbol", Goethe would have it: and what could be more fleeting than sounds?). The second reason will be clear to anyone who has ever watched the conductor of an orchestra. With a single gesture, a vague and ambiguous direction written on the score becomes a sound. And how? Through the act of breathing. Conducting is the seductive art of getting a hundred instrumentalists to breathe in syntony – tuned to the same frequency – as the conductor. In the same way, the literary translator needs to breathe as one with the author being translated. Hence one of the few dogmas we will pronounce here: it is impossible to translate a text without being tuned to the same frequency.

The human brain is divided into two hemispheres: the left, controlling logical and analytical functions, and the right, controlling the so-called creative functions – a nice way of saying that we know little or nothing about this hemisphere. During the nineteen-fifties, psychiatry developed an infallible means of curing mental disorders: remove bits of the brain. In the case of epilepsy, accordingly, the procedure was to resect the corpus callosum, the tissue connecting the two cerebral hemispheres. It was then found that with no cognitive deficiencies, the victim of the treatment developed a strange syndrome: split personalities, inordinately rigorous on the one hand, rebellious and childish on the other. The former, in answer to a question, would respond only by drawing the distinction between 'true' and 'false', or perhaps 'correct' and 'unclear'; the latter would be capable of defining a question 'bitter' or 'violet' and little more. Thus it was discovered that the distinction between denotation and connotation was associated with the corpus callosum. Sign in the left hemisphere, Symbol in the right. Faust had fever of the corpus callosum. If we pluck a Chinese from the paddy fields, poke his head into a CAT-scan gantry and force him to tell us his life story, it will be the right cerebral hemisphere of the imagination that appears stained with the more spectacular colours. In the case of a German, it would be the left. Sorghum beer switches on lights to the left; beer brewed with hops, to the right.

The literary translator needs to be Chinese in some measure. The process that leads the writer from Sign to Symbol is instinctive, and unless this is reversed – hence analytically and consciously – the possibilities of a successful outcome are zero. The German expression "to paint the devil on the wall" means "to invite misfortune"; the saying would be incomprehensible without the image of Luther in the Castle of Wartburg, intent on his translation of the Bible, throwing the inkwell at an unwelcome Satan (the stain is preserved to this day). Again, it is difficult to see why "proprio un affare che mi va a genio" in Italian should become "just my cup of tea" in English without some knowledge of the differences between the two cultures in the art of polite drawing-room conversation. Conversely, there is the risk of a complete misunderstanding, like that of the American translator who rendered the innocuous "Carla entrò" at the opening of Moravia's Indifferenti, as "He entered Carla".

d) Bateson's "every schoolboy knows"

In his Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson summarizes every error of interpretation in a series of automatic and erroneous presuppositions:


  1. Science never proves anything
  2. Translation in Translatology: given the recurrence of a term in an author's work, it does not mean necessarily that the sign always symbolizes the same concept (e.g. the adjective 'proud', usually portraying 'loftiness' in Shakespeare, also appears in parts of the Midsummer Night's Dream when Bottom is on stage, and generally in every parody of the tragic hero).

  3. The map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named
  4. Translation: in many canonical areas of Literature, an image is forced into expressing the opposite to the meaning attributed by cultural conventions (e.g. in Nietzsche, the much-repeated Will to Power is Wille zurt Macht, the Will that aspires inextinguishably to Power, whilst Superman is Ubermensch, "Overman", something that has no longer anything to do with man).

  5. There is no objective experience
  6. Translation: here we enter the realms of mysticism, the ineffability of the translating process. A good example would be the tale by Borges entitled Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, which represents the aleph, the essential beginning, for every translator. We shall return to this soon.

  7. The processes of image formation are unconscious
  8. Translation: give preference to the visual over the conceptual. Without appreciating the dramatic effect – the bipartite, polyphonic 'scene' – of the episode in Madame Bovary where Emma is being seduced upstairs in the town hall by a mediocre suitor while down below, during the local fair, the voice of the major announces the prices awarded to the various heads of livestock, the essence will never be captured.

  9. The division of the perceived universe into parts and whole is convenient and may be necessary, but no necessity determines how it shall be done
  10. This is a corollary to item 4.

  11. Divergent sequences are unpredictable
  12. Convergent sequences are predictable
  13. Translation: the most important part of a novel is the part that remains unwritten, but which the translator must be able to perceive, running beneath the narrative. For example, who is Ishmael, the character who introduces us to the story of Moby Dick, and what has brought him so low that he needs to take ship with Captain Ahab? Probably a murderer, running from the law. If he is, then his inevitable attitude of ethical indifference to the intensity of the unfolding tragedy takes on another significance. Rereading Moby Dick, I'm convinced that he is just that'

  14. "Nothing will come of nothing"
  15. Here we are completely at home, because this is a quotation from King Lear: beware of over-interpretations. The obsession that seeks to make everything clear is the death of poetry. There are passages in the great works of literature which can be 'difficult' even in the original language. Why should they be any easier in the target language? The translator must not explain the text (more dogma I'm afraid'). If in doubt, stick to the voicings and the punctuation of the original and stand your ground cheerfully with the editor of the publishing house (e.g. with sentences expanded, all Nietzsche is all Kafka, and with elliptic compression, the same is true in reverse. If anyone happens to unearth an Italian translation of these two authors that observes the original geometry of the sentence, please write and tell me).

  16. Number is different from quantity
  17. Quantity does not determine pattern
  18. This is a corollary to item 7.

  19. There are no monotone "values" in biology
  20. Sometimes small is beautiful
  21. Whereas reiteration and symmetry are so beloved of German poetry, with its roots in the Volkeslied, they are insufferable to the Neo-latins, champions of the variatio. In his Alto Rhapsody, Brahms sets to music a fragment of Goethe taken from Harzreise Em Winter, which begins with 'aber', 'but'. Listen to this disturbing masterpiece, and discover what metaphysical depths are laid bare by that 'aber'. No further examples are necessary, but beware of that 'nice style' they taught in school. How well Dostoievsky writes, in Italian translations !

  22. Logic is a poor model of cause and effect
  23. Translation: unlike the reader, the literary translator reads the book through before attempting any interpretation. Consequently, the translation will tend to be coloured right from the start with the overall image of the book formed in the translator's mind. In effect, the translator hates chaos, but when approaching a narrative like Nerval's Aurelia – a series of chinese boxes – this is a prejudice that has catastrophic effects.

  24. Causality does not work backward
  25. Ah! A nice corollary to item 13. This could be a third dogma'

  26. Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction
  27. The entire second part of the course will be dedicated to this question.

  28. "Stability" and "change" describe parts of our descriptions

Translation: who knows from what mountain Zarathustra comes down when, at the beginning of the nietzschean 'poem', he decides to end his exile. Certainly, not the mountain of the reader, neither that of the translator. The scene in the mind's eye of the translator combines with that envisaged by the author, providing a filter for the scene perceived ultimately by the reader, and it is from this that aesthetic enjoyment of the work is derived.

Undoubtedly, it is now time for us translatologists to come down from the mountain of definitions and enter the arena of interpretation techniques and intertextuality'