Perils of Translation

A bilingual student of mine recently made the following observation. During a period of study in England, she had become an admirer of Milan Kundera, reading his work in English. Later, back in Italy, she had picked up an early novel of his, in Italian. She remarked: “It was only when I was three quarters of the way through that I realized it was the same novel I had read first of all in England. I knew the plot was the same of course, but the book was so completely, so utterly different I was convinced it couldn’t be the one I had already read.”

Checking recently through the Italian translation of an early novel of my own, a noir I suppose you would call it, scribbled in my second year in Italy, I was disturbed to find the following remark. The hero, a young Englishman in Italy who is about to turn to a life of crime, recognizes that this has something to do with the change of language. He says:

The only thing he had truly gained these last two years was the ability to speak a foreign language near perfectly and the curious freedom that ability now appeared to give him in the way he thought. As if he had shifted off rails. His mind seemed to roam free over any and every possibility. He must make a big effort always to think in Italian as well as to speak it (certainly he had been thinking in Italian when he stole the document case). It could be a way out of himself, he thought, and out of the trap they had all and always wanted him to fall into.

I wrote this, and promptly forgot it, in my late twenties, some years before I started translating anything with literary pretensions and many years before I began to read more seriously about language and linguistics. In the meantime, however, I have discovered the Italian proverb “Inglese italianizzato, inglese indiavolato,” which would have been such an appropriate quotation to have placed on the title page. Just as that proverb translates poorly into English, so my comment on the hero’s sense of moral liberty in a foreign language, which seemed convincing enough in the original English, appears much less so in the Italian translation, where the reader is doubtless all too aware that his language is drenched in Catholic morality. The liberty Italian gave my hero had to do with its novelty, his unawareness of its implications, his being uninitiated in the culture it supports.

What I want to do here is to ask if there is any useful connection to be made between my bilingual student’s surprise on reading Kundera in a different language and my hero’s perception that his appropriation of the Italian language would open the way to his appropriation of other people’s property. And again whether there is a connection between these two events—one real, one fictional—and my own growing conviction that a very great deal…

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