Traduttore traditore

The title of this post is an Italian aphorism that says “[A] translator [is a] betrayer.” The idea, of course, is that any translation from one language into another is bound to change features of the original: the nuance and cultural connotation of a word, the idiomatic sense of a phrase, the way lines of poetry rhyme, etc. In this post and the next, let’s look at some of the connections that traduttore and traditore have to Spanish and English.

Italian traduttore corresponds to Latin traductor, the agent noun derived from the verb traducere, which Spanish speakers recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed traducir. The Latin verb was a compound of trans ‘across’ and ducere ‘to lead,’ so a translator metaphorically leads a text across from one language to another.

The Romans often used traducere literally and neutrally, but they also added a cluster of negative senses: ‘to lead along, exhibit as a spectacle, make a show of, expose to public ridicule, dishonor, disgrace, degrade.’ When English first “traduced” traducere into traduce, it retained the various meanings of the original, including ‘to translate,’ but that sense has been lost, so only negative ones survive. In modern English, traduce means ‘to expose to contempt or shame; to represent as blamable; to calumniate; to vilify; to defame.’ With Spanish traducir things are reversed, and the senses stray only as far from ‘translate’ as ‘convert’ and ‘interpret.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 12:17:12

    And then there is that “other” sort of translation – the kind I first learned about during a year in Salt Lake City. It’s a little complicated, so I’ll just provide this, from the Wiki:

    “In the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), translation refers to being physically changed by God from a mortal human being to an immortal human being. A person that has been translated is referred to as a translated being. According to LDS theology, Enoch, Moses, John the Apostle, the Three Nephites, and others were translated.

    A translated being is akin to a resurrected person with the exception that a translated being has never died and a translated being has a body with less power than a resurrected being. Ordinary human beings are said to have a telestial body. People who are translated are said to have a terrestrial body. People who are resurrected are said to have a celestial body.”

    And there you have it. Presumably the Mormon faithful wouldn’t be so fond of the Italian aphorism you quoted, since it puts God in the position of being the “betrayer”, but their specialized use of the term does capture the meaning of “leading across”.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 28, 2013 @ 21:05:02

      I’ve spent only a few days in Salt Lake City and haven’t heard about that specialized use of translate, but on the same trip I traveled around Utah for a week or so and translated some of the scenery I saw into photographs.


  2. kathryningrid
    May 14, 2013 @ 13:49:43

    I suppose it’s hardly surprising that one of the chief ways in which I would use the titular aphorism is to describe the damage done by translators of musical lyrics, particularly those of operas. The particularity of sound–vowels, consonants, rhythms, colors and the like–inherent in any language is such a central characteristic of how the original lyrics fit with the music and shape its effects that I tend to loathe most attempts at such translation. One of the few exceptions I make is when the piece has been specifically written in two different languages by the composer, a sometimes rather revealing and piquant approach, though even then I might have a strong preference for one language over the other for the aforementioned reasons. In some ways, I think the choice of language, whether in music or writing or simply in conversation, so significantly shapes meaning that it makes me deeply envious of those who have mastered multiple languages (you, of course!), whether by lifelong immersion or by dint of personal effort.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 14, 2013 @ 14:33:39

      In watching one of “The Great Courses” about the Impressionists the other day, I learned that the French poet Mallarmé worked as an English teacher. In fact he wrote one of his critiques of Impressionism—one that was quoted from in the course—in English.

      A recent television documentary about the actress Anna May Wong mentioned that in the early days of talking movies the directors sometime made versions of the film in two or three languages for distribution to different countries.

      Opera lyrics can be stilted, even in the original language, and I live with that as part of what an opera is, but translations into English are usually terrible, as you pointed out. And as I’ve been know to carp: the only think worse than rap “music” is rap “music” in a language other than English.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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