Let us suppose that someone asks us to explain the sense of the expression buongiorno (and it would be the same with bonjour and, within certain limits, with guten Tag and good day). We might say that, literally, it could be a description of a fine or joyful day, but that, according to current conventions, when pronounced holophrastically it is a greeting whose function is first and foremost a phatic one; while in the second place, it represents the hope that the person being greeted will have a day devoid of worries and full of satisfaction, even though the sincerity of the wish is much less important than the attempt to make a show of courtesy and of the absence of aggressiveness (except for particular suprasegmental versions, in which the greeting, pronounced in a clipped manner through clenched teeth, is intended to indicate hostility). The phatic function is so important that buongiorno could be replaced (when people are on first-name terms) with come va (how's it going?), without any risk of compromising the interaction.

This entire paraphrase of the term buongiorno would be a case of good interpretation, but not of "translation," and the proof of this is that if, having interpreted in English the meaning of buongiorno, on meeting someone I were to say, (a) "In accordance with the phatic use of language and for reasons of courtesy, I wish you an easy and happy day," I should at the very least be thought of as bizarre. And the same thing would happen if I said in French, (b) "Selon la fonction de l'utilisation phatique du langage et par politesse je vous souhaite une journéc heureuse et agréable." Of course, (b) would be generally accepted as a fair translation of (a), but both (a) and (b) would be understood as interpretations (in the sense of rewordings), and not translations, of buongiorno.

What happens when, instead, I decide to translate buongiorno as bonjour or good day? We have already excluded the notion that there is a passage involving a Perfect Language or some type of "Mentalese" in the process of translating from language to language. Therefore, and remaining faithful to the Peircean notion of interpretation, on hearing the Italian expression buongiorno, I move on to interpret its content and deem as adequate interpretants those expressions that, even if they enhance the content of the expression interpreted, could be adequately interpreted by it in their turn (for example, if [a] is an adequate interpretation of the meaning of buongiorno, it could be interpreted in its turn by the expression buongiorno.) In doing this, however, I do not merely keep to the semantic value but also to the pragmatic value of the expression. If I were to stick only to semantic values, then I could translate buongiorno with good day, which is a current expression, but perhaps less refined; moreover, I would have to know that buongiorno is usually translated as "good morning" or "good afternoon" according to the (temporal) circumstances of the utterance. If I have to translate into French a buongiorno uttered at the beginning of an interaction, I will not translate it as bonne journée (which would be semantically equivalent) because the. French say bonjour at the beginning of the interaction and bonne journée (which is, moreover, a rather unrefined and informal expression) only when taking their leave. If I had to translate bonne journée into English, still in the light of current linguistic usage, I would translate it as "have a nice day or even "take care" (just as I would translate it into Italian as stia bene! but I would not translate this Italian expression with the more literal, but ridiculous, "may you stay well.")

Attempts to make these translations adequate depend on the effect (in this case, social) required, and the interpretation must pursue this effect. Why would it be inadvisable to translate bonne journée with "I hope you will have good and enjoyable experiences for the rest of the day?" Why would it be inviting criticism to translate "attento allo scalino" as "I advise you to pay attention to the step whose presence may perhaps have escaped your notice" and not as "mind the step?" From the point of view of interpretation there would be no objection, and it could be said that the effect we wanted to achieve is the same. The point is that a basic ingredient of any greeting, like conventional warnings, is brevity. A good translation of a greeting or a warning must retain the swiftness with which it is proffered.

--- From Experiences in Translation
Umberto Eco
©2001, University of Toronto Press

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