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PrisencolinensinainciusolAlmost exactly a year ago, Cory Doctorow linked a video of Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol on BoingBoing, sparking a lively debate which lasted several months, with hundreds of comments.

At the Sydney symposium on Literary Translation held by UWS last October, Esther Allen was telling Olivia E. Sears about it. I immediately joined in, quite surprised and amused at the idea that a cheeky Italian song recorded almost thirty years ago could spark a linguistic debate among serious translation scholars, but rapidly realising that the song does bring up a few linguistic considerations.

Obviously, one can simply take the song as an unpretentious bit of fun, going with one of Celentano’s explanations for it:

having just recorded an album of songs that meant something, I wanted to do something that meant nothing.

In another instance, maybe slightly more pretentiously, he said on TV that the song is about

“incommunicability” because in modern times people are not able to communicate to each other anymore. He added the only word we need is prisencolinensinainciusol, which is supposed to stand for “universal love”

As an amateur musician, I think that Italian words are too long and always finish with a vowel, making the language not ideal for rock ‘n’ roll.

However we want to see the song, it’s easy to see Celentano’s gibberish as an interesting symptom of skewed power relationship between languages and cultures. By the way, it started long before Prisencolinensenainciusol was ever in the making:

Also see Alberto Sordi‘s Un americano a Roma:


Most importantly, there is more to this phenomenon than mere phonetics. Since the end of WWII, with the increasing cultural dominance of the Anglosphere on modern Europe, English has represented coolness, modernity and progress for generations of young Europeans, who still use it whenever they want to convey a more cosmopolitan, international feel. Something similar, on a smaller scale and with less serious cultural implications, happens as Italian and French are constantly used to boost foodstuffs’ and clothes’ appeal in English-speaking countries, for example.

Another interesting consequence of the BoingBoing article about the song was the emergence of at least two videos where people tried to make sense of nonsense, subtitling Celentano’s gibberish with more or less plausible English approximations. Needless to say, some pretty original verses were born out of these attempts:

Just for the record, there is no actual debate on the fact that Celentano was just making random sounds that were supposed to sound like English (and mimicking the impossibly cool aesthetics of rock ‘n’ roll) , not unlike Kramer’s operatic Italian gibberish in Seinfeld:

In any case, we are back to the questions we were asking over breakfast with Esther and Olivia: what is one to see in Prisencolinensinainciusol? Simple, unpretentious imitation? Mockery, even? Or rather the worrying consequence of a cultural imperialism leading to almost grotesque efforts to bridge the gap between master and servant, and wiping out national and cultural identities in the process? There’s no easy answer, and it’s probably a multitude of factors at play, but it certainly is an interesting debate to have. Furthermore, the fact that a video like this can originate such a debate shows once again that linguistic issues are not just boring and trivial details for a few insiders.

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You are uselessLast week the Observer published a very interesting article by Maureen Freely, who successfully translated Orhan Pamuk’s works into English. I recommend the article to everyone interested in discovering the relationship between author and translator, but it is so good that there will be something for everyone. I was particularly taken by two very good points Maureen Freely makes. Firstly, she reminds the readers about the importance of literary translation and, therefore, literary translators:

An up-and-coming Colombian novelist might be inspired not just by Borges, Conrad and Faulkner, but by contemporary novelists from Asia, Africa and Europe; his literary response to their work will go on to influence what his contemporaries on the other side of the world write next. These complex patterns of cross-fertilisation would end overnight if it were not for literary translators and the publishers who support them.

I couldn’t agree more. This notion of cross-fertilisation (I used the verb cross-pollination in one of my first posts) has always been one of my main arguments whenever translation comes up as a topic of discussion. That translations only make up less than 3% of published titles in the English-speaking world should be a cause for concern. And I am not referring to the trite rants about “cultural imperialism”, but simply to the fact that publishing and reading such a limited amount of translated literature is bad for the national literatures of English-speaking countries. Goethe believed that without outside influences national literatures rapidly stagnate. Moreover, in countries where translations constitute as much as a third of what is published, it is common for

novelists and poets to work at some point in their lives as translators. Though most will say that they did so mainly to subsidise their own writing, it is often clear, when you look at that writing, that it has been enriched by the imaginary conversations they’ve had with the poets and novelists whose words they have translated.

On a completely different note, Freely’s article also shows how machine translation is perfectly useless for literary texts. A few months ago, I compared the most used free automatic translators, in an effort to show their users how easily things can go wrong. I was quite surprised to find myself linked by Luigi Muzii who called me naïve (although he also states that Edith Grossman, Sylvia Notini and Lawrence Venuti are damaging to the profession, so, yeah, I guess a couple of pinches of salt are in order) and went on to rant about the silly literary translators’ need to feel “irreplaceable”. I never even responded to that, as my original post was pretty much enough to prove my point, and it wasn’t meant to be an in-depth technical analysis of machine translation or the work that makes it even possible, as I am anything but an expert in the field. I just analysed the results. Maureen Freely, though, gives us an even better example of how literary translator do not need to feel irreplaceable, because, apparently, they are. Here is the first sentence of Istanbul: Memories of a City as rendered by Google Translate:

A place in the streets of Istanbul, similar to ours in a different house, with everything I like, twin, or even exactly the same, starting from childhood lived another Orhan a corner of my mind I believed for many years.

Translated by Maureen Freely as:

From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.

Not the quite the same, feel, there, or am I wrong? Even more mind-blowing is Google’s translation of the first sentence of  The Black Book:

Bed-of top-from tip-to as-far-as stretched-out blue checked quilt-of rugged terrain-its, shadowy valleys-its and blue soft hills-its-with covered sweet and warm darkness-in Rüya face-down stretched-out sleeping-was.

Hmm. Let’s see what Freely did:

Rüya was lying face down on the bed, lost to the sweet, warm darkness beneath the billowing folds of the blue-checked quilt.

I don’t think I need to add much more. Nonetheless, it’s a free world, and Luigi Muzii (especially considering his experience and competence) can freely call me or anyone else “naïve” for defending the vital role of literary translation and the impossibility for a machine to replace a human being when translating literature. As for the rest of us, let’s keep smuggling words, ideas, metaphors and visions. It’s the best cure against linguistic barbarism.

Image: You are Useless, by 2493/Gavin Bobo (Flickr).

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Rejoice!

Amazon opened its Italian store yesterday, and a translator can’t help but notice that, from Day One, translated books list the translator’s name next to the author’s (it actually says “By [AUTHOR] and [TRANSLATOR]).

Having campaigned and complained, like many others before me, about the translator’s invisibility (most Italian reviewers still willfully omit the translator’s name, unless there is something terribly wrong with the translation) this is a very small but uplifting sign that maybe more and more people are starting to understand the significance of what we do.

 

 

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It’s been a week, already, since The Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation started.

Waiting for the recordings of the proceedings to appear on the website of the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney, I would like to share some links about the event to complement my ecstatic, immediate reaction.

A few articles about the symposium have appeared, including a very detailed report by Joel Scott for Three Percent, some highlights by Eric Abrahamsen on Paper Republic,  and a short post by author Susanne Gervay (including a picture where you can see your truly behind Olivia E. Sears, so yes, it definitely happened!).

Eric Abrahamsen writes:

I’ll admit I was junior member at what was largely a gathering of really pretty intimidating literary and academic figures—I was approximately fifteen years and two university degrees behind the median.

Obviously, not only I feel the same way – we were two of the most “pragmatic” speakers, talking about specific translation issues without delving into academic matters – but I was probably twenty to twenty-five years behind the median. Ask anyone, on Thursday night I was quite nervous. After the reaction to my paper, though, I simply felt like I wanted to be with those people every weekend.

Anyway, I just wanted to share the links about the symposium for now. I am working on a post which will condense the argument I made in my presentation, but I am feverish at the moment, so that will have to wait.

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San GirolamoWhen I gingerly started this blog, I wrote

[My] hope is to be able to [talk about translation] with fellow translators as well as with readers or curious passers-by. With the former, I would like to exchange ideas, going beyond mere technicalities but without losing ourselves in theories, either.

I think I am a good translator, but I am not an academic or a scholar – at the very least, not yet . Therefore, I wouldn’t have hoped that someone like Chris Andrews, an outstanding translator, poet and scholar, could read this blog and invite me to join a panel at The Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation, organised by the Writing and Society Research Group, University of Western Sydney. Still, it happened, and I am extremely grateful to Chris Andrews, Suzanne Gapps, Ivor Indyk, Gail Jones, Nicholas Jose, Kathleen Olive, and the rest of the Group for this wonderful opportunity. I am also grateful to every single one of the people who commented on my paper, offered insight, simply had a chat, and in so many ways made these last two days absolutely unforgettable.

A dinner on International Translation Day preceded two days of panels featuring some incredibly talented people. Those who weren’t there will find brief description of the presentations and biographical notes in the program. You will see why, as a young translator, it was impossible for me not feel extremely inspired. The Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney will make the recordings of the proceedings available for download. I will certainly let everyone know on this blog when that happens. Any translator will find the material extremely interesting and diverse. And the plurality of points of view about literary translation was one of the key elements that made this event so special.

Extra thanks to Eric Abrahamsen, Olivia E. Sears, Esther Allen, Simon Patton, Thon-That Quynh-Du, Simon West, Meredith McKinney, Marcelo Cohen, Mridula Chakraborty, Evelyn JuersPhillip Musgrave, Royall Tyler, Patrizia Burley-Lombardi.

Translation can be quite isolating work. Being among so many people who share my love for this art and all its ramifications was really special.  And being able to talk about it without making it boring, quoting Simon Patton, felt very good indeed.

But I would also like to point out that one of the many great things about the symposium was  the fantastic atmosphere before and after the sessions, at breakfast, during  the breaks, into the evening. In some way, even when the topic changed, we were still talking about translation, or rather, as Simon Patton put it, about all those things that intersect translation. A continual exchange of ideas, comments, and experiences. A breathtaking exploration of a world of smuggled words.

Come on, talking with Esther Allen about Adriano Celentano’s mock-English gibberish in Prisencolinensinainciusol? Priceless.

IMAGE: St.Jerome – Ink Drawing, by Philip Bitnar

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Controller instructionsLast year I got an imitation dual shock controller on e-bay. It came from Hong Kong for $3.95 plus shipping, a small price to pay for being able to play old Super Nintendo games on my laptop every once in a while. I was tidying up when I found the precious piece of thin cardboard with the device’s instructions, and I though I should share some of the major fails for some unpretentious, late-August translation fun.

Let’s just go past the typos and other minor signs of awkwardness like “Taking you into wonderful game word”. After all, I was expecting Chinglish and nothing else. Some of the translations, though, are so convoluted and obscure that I doubt even the least impressive automatic translators could do worse.

First and foremost, how to take care of the controller. Please remember to

Avoid high temperature, aquosity and direct sunlight

and, most importantly,

Don’t use the causticity liquid clear the product surface.

On a different note, customers will be pleased to know that

The reasonable human body construction design felling is more comfortable

Dual-shocked, yet? Wait, there is more. Firstly,

the rubberized and texture operation parts defend the sweat antiskid

plus, you might be happy to find out that this device can

Imitate the mode to convert with normal regulations mode arbitrarity

Finally, what I assume was meant as a warning about any warranty becoming void if you open the controller:

Private to dismantle the product does not belong to protect fix the scope

Now, I am sure there are plenty of qualified Chinese-to-English translators who could have translated the whole lot for about $20. But let’s assume that’s too much money to pay for whichever obscure company manufactures these gadgets – the company name or details are nowhere to be found, talk about dodgy… Still, I bet that the average Chinese high school student can produce something at least more intelligible than this.

Sure, you’ll say, it was only a $3.95 controller. And after seeing those translation horrors on Italia.it, Italy’s official tourism website, this is really nothing. And that’s true, of course, but I always enjoy a good old translation fail.

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Oggi ascolto "Suzanne"On this blog I have often talked about literary translation. I have briefly talked about translating movie dialogues and subtitles. Still, despite my abiding passion for music, I just realised that I still haven’t talked about translation in music.

Sure, it’s not very common, especially because most of the times people just write new lyrics over the original melody. Also – let me stress this, since you’re reading the English version of this post – it’s mostly a matter of translating British or American songs into languages like Italian, seldom the other way around. You might know that Stand by Me, a beautiful love song, in Italian became Pregherò, a mystical delirium about a blind girl seeing God through faith. In La casa del sole (The House of the Rising Sun) the “sin and misery” of a gambling man’s son in New Orleans disappear, and we’re left with a rather dull love song. Italy’s star rocker Vasco Rossi recently wrote his own lyrics to Radiohead’s Creep and produced Ad ogni costo, and he did the same with Celebrate, by An Emotional Fish where the line “this party’s over” sounded like “gli spari sopra”, which became the title of the song. Old-timer Jimmy Fontana did a similar thing when he turned the words “my, my, my Delilah” into “mai, mai, mai ti lascio”.

Simply put, the new versions were almost never translations of the original. And even if translating poetry requires a rare mastery, in order to carry the images and sounds to the target language while constrained in the cage of metrics, it seems that most people couldn’t be bothered to even make an effort.

A notable exception is Fabrizio De André, in my opinion the best – by far – poet/singer/songwriter that Italy ever had. De André not only wrote some of the best verses of all time in Italian, but also left us some of the best translations of lyrics in popular music. In his early years he translated many songs by French chansonnier Georges Brassens, while in the 70’s he approached some of Leonard Cohen’s songs, like Joan of Arc, Nancy, and Suzanne.

I’d like to focus on Suzanne, for now, as I think that De André simply came up with pretty much the best possible translation of Cohen’s lyrics. There is only one passage where he strays from the original meaning and imagery, but that is a deliberate decision not to have Jesus “sink like a stone”.

Here are Cohen’s original lyrics:

Suzanne takes you down/to her place near the river/you can hear the boats go by/you can spend the night beside her/And you know that she’s half crazy/but that’s why you want to be there/and she feeds you tea and oranges/that come all the way from China/And just when you mean to tell her/that you have no love to give her/she gets you on her wavelength/and she lets the river answer/that you’ve always been her lover

And you want to travel with her/and you want to travel blind/and you know that she can trust you/for you’ve touched her perfect body/with your mind.

And Jesus was a sailor/when he walked upon the water/and he spent a long time watching/from his lonely wooden tower/and when he knew for certain/only drowning men could see him/he said All men will be sailors then/until the sea shall free them/but he himself was broken/long before the sky would open/forsaken, almost human/he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

And you want to travel with him/you want to travel blind/and you think maybe you’ll trust him/for he’s touched your perfect body/with his mind

Now Suzanne takes your hand/and she leads you to the river/she is wearing rags and feathers/from Salvation Army counters/And the sun pours down like honey/on our lady of the harbour/And she shows you where to look/among the garbage and the flowers/There are heroes in the seaweed/there are children in the morning/they are leaning out for love/they will lean that way forever/while Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her/you want to travel blind/and you know that you can trust her/for she’s touched your perfect body/with her mind

Now for Fabrizio De André’s translation:

Nel suo posto in riva al fiume/Suzanne ti ha voluto accanto,/e ora ascolti andar le barche/e ora puoi dormirle al fianco,/si lo sai che lei è pazza/ma per questo sei con lei./E ti offre il tè e le arance/che ha portato dalla Cina/e proprio mentre stai per dirle/che non hai amore da offrirle,/lei è già sulla tua onda/e fa che il fiume ti risponda/che da sempre siete amanti.

E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che le hai toccato il corpo,/il suo corpo perfetto con la mente.

E Gesù fu marinaio/finché camminò sull’acqua,/e restò per molto tempo/a guardare solitario/dalla sua torre di legno,/e poi quando fu sicuro/che soltanto agli annegati/fosse dato di vederlo,/disse: “Siate marinai/finché il mare vi libererà”./E lui stesso fu spezzato,/ma più umano, abbandonato,/nella nostra mente lui non naufragò.

E tu vuoi viaggiargli insieme/vuoi viaggiargli insieme ciecamente,/forse avrai fiducia in lui/perché ti ha toccato il corpo con la mente.

E Suzanne ti dà la mano,/ti accompagna lungo il fiume,/porta addosso stracci e piume,/presi in qualche dormitorio,/il sole scende come miele/su di lei donna del porto/che ti indica i colori/fra la spazzatura e i fiori,/scopri eroi fra le alghe marce/e bambini nel mattino,/che si sporgono all’amore/e così faranno sempre;/e Suzanne regge lo specchio.

E tu vuoi viaggiarle insieme/vuoi viaggiarle insieme ciecamente,/perché sai che ti ha toccato il corpo,/il tuo corpo perfetto con la mente.

I read the translation over and over again, and at most I can think of changing very few minor details…

Photo: Oggi ascolto “Suzanne”, by Andrea D’Ippolito (CC – Flickr).

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