Translating Style: a literary Approach to Translation Approach to Literature

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1. Identifying an Original
For the last ten years or so I have been playing the game of inviting students 
to look at the same passage in English and Italian and to tell me which is the 
original and which the translation, a game that would later develop into a 
methodology, or almost. Here is the kind of text one inevitably starts with, 
because it is so easy. It is taken from a tourist guide.
The clear poem of the surrounding landscape, where very sweet sunsets 
go down, the fertile land with long poplar-rows and slow streams of riv-
ers and canals, the laborious and strong people of the vast agricultural 
and industrial zone (simple and persevering in their own traditions) 
form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary 
wisdom of the local administrations has opportunely respected.
And the Italian:
La limpida poesia del paesaggio circostante su cui scendono tramonti 
dolcissimi, la terra ubertosa con lunghi filari di pioppi e pigre correnti 
di fiumi e canali, la gente vigorosa e laboriosa della vasta zona agricola 
ed industriale (semplice e tenace nelle proprie tradizioni) fanno come 
da corona al gruppo storico della città che la saggezza esemplare delle 
amministrazioni locali ha opportunamente rispettato. 
There is rarely a student who does not identify this as an Italian original in 
the space of a minute or so. And even the native English speaker with little 
or no Italian will immediately be aware that the English here is either a poor 
translation or a parody of some kind. Indeed, native English speakers have 
a tendency to burst out laughing when they hear the text read out loud. But 
can we say why exactly? And is there anything useful to be learnt from our 
reactions to a text like this? 
Having shown students the passage I invite them to try to identify examples 
of lexical interference in the translation (for example false cognates, or col-
locations that are acceptable in Italian but not in English), then grammatical 
Multilingual tourist brochure published by Pelloni editori, Mantua. The text is undated, 
but believed to be about 1980.

Identifying an Original
interference (syntactical structures that are considered ‘correct’ and ordinary in 
Italian but not in English) and finally what I refer to as ‘cultural interference’ 
(elements that might be desirable in a passage of this kind in Italy, but not in 
an Anglo-Saxon culture). 
What emerges from such an analysis when applied to this particular 
translation is that while there are many lexical and cultural ‘problems’, there 
is only one straight grammatical error in the English (‘form like a ring’). So 
we are not talking about total incompetence on the part of the translator here. 
On the contrary, a large number of grammatical transformations have been 
successfully performed. 
With regard to
lexical interference, it is true that the false cognates (‘labo-
rious’, ‘zone’, ‘group’) do their worst; nevertheless we soon appreciate that, 
like the grammar, they are not the main culprits in generating that growing 
hilarity that seizes the native English speaker as he reads through this text. 
The problem is rather more complicated. 
Let us consider the collocation presented in the opening line: 
The clear poem
La limpida poesia (The clear/transparent/unruffled poem/poetry
Here we notice that while ‘poem’ is a true cognate of ‘poesia’ it is unusual 
to use the word figuratively in this way in English. The uncountable noun 
‘poetry’, also a true cognate of ‘poesia’ (Italians use the same word for both 
the single ‘poem’ and the more generic ‘poetry’), lends itself more easily to 
figurative use. Partly as a result of the difficulty with this leap into the figura-
tive, and partly because the words ‘limpido’ and ‘clear’ only overlap for a 
limited part of their respective connotative ranges, the word ‘clear’ tends to 
be understood, before ‘poem’, as meaning ‘easily comprehensible’ rather than 
indicating, as does ‘limpido’, visual clarity, as in ‘a clear day’ or ‘clear water’. 
As a result we have the impression that the writer has attempted a metaphor 
with lyric pretensions, but in the end made no real sense at all. 
Only a little further on in the same opening sentence, the emphasizing of 
‘very’ before ‘sweet’ to translate the Italian superlative ‘dolcissimi’ (sweet-

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