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SCHOOL/ What happens inside the head of a student when he translates?

May Wed 02, 2012

(Fotolia)  (Fotolia)

In addressing the question of the meaning and value of the exercise of translating, I would like to start from a distinction, which I believe is useful, between multi-linguism and translation capabilities. While having a multilingual competence is natural (which is why one can easily understand a foreign language without being able to translate it into one’s own language), being able to translate is an expertise that is acquired artificially, through exercise.

My experience teaching a class of beginners in Latin confirms me in the belief that the exercise of learning how to translate, however it is done, is demanding. In fact, I see students who, despite knowing how to conduct a logical analysis of a short piece with a good approximation of its meaning, then do not produce a translation equivalent in quality (in fact, they ignore their own analysis in their translation!). This shows that understanding, a prerequisite of translation, is not a subset of the morpho-syntactic analysis of the text. On the contrary, I have also seen situations in which students have a fundamentally correct translation, even though they have not done a detailed analysis. This occurs when the important elements of the sentence and the text are clear to them (the verbs and subjects first, and then cognition of the context). I believe it is sustainable to assert, therefore, that there is no correspondence between the grammatical understanding of the text and the ability to translate it, in the sense that the first condition is not sufficient for the second to occur.

Moreover, I myself know from experience that understanding does not necessarily lead to knowing how to translate a text into one’s own language. I recently read the work of a Latin author of the sixth century (Martin of Braga), entitled Formula vitae honestae, and I confess that, at first, I was not able to translate those few words of the title, even though I immediately understood the topic to which they referred. In fact, the trivial transliteration "formula of an honest life," for those who are serious, evokes cars or marketing (from Formula One to the various formulas of detergents), or legal issues (what does honest mean? Let’s not ask the media...). Instead, it is useful for me to think that honestus has something to do with honos/honor, which contains the idea of ??importance (for something you have or you do), esteem and respect, and that formula is derived from forma which indicates the appearance (or good looks) of something. Thus, the hazy formula vitae honestae is something that involves a type of beautiful life, one that deserves respect. This is not everything, but it is already much better than the initial confusion. I now find myself in the situation of those who, while not knowing how to translate a phrase, cannot deny that they have at least partially understood it.



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