Definition vs.

Some people think that expressions like "mammalian feline" or "domestic animal that miaows" elucidate the meaning of the word cat: if one said that those expressions were translations of cat, there would be a total identification of the expressed meaning and translation. It would not be merely a question of words. Let us take the first quatrain of Baudelaire's "Les chats:"

    Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
    Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
    Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
    Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.

An English translation gives:

    Fervent lovers and austere scholars
    Love equally, in their ripe season,
    Powerful and gentle cats, the pride of the house,
    Who like them are sensitive to cold and like them sedentary.

This is a literal translation without any particular pretensions to equalling the source text, but it could be said that anyone starting from (ii) in order to reconstruct (i), would obtain something semantically (if not aesthetically) fairly analogous to Baudelaire's text. In fact, when I asked Altavista's automatic translation service to turn the English text into French, I got:

    Les amoureux ardants et les disciples austères
    Aiment également, dans leur saison mûre,
    Les chats puissants et doux, la fierté de la maison,
    Qui comme eux sont sensibles au froid et les aiment sédentaires.

It must be admitted that from the semantic point of view we have recovered much of the original text. The only real error, in the fourth line, occurs when the adverb like is mistaken for a verb. Except for this "slip," (ii) was no better: it preserved neither rhyme nor metre, while this mechanical rewording at least retains the first Alexandrine (perfectly) and two rhymes, thus showing that (i) had apoetic function.

Now let us assume, following Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (if rewording is thought to be a form of translation), that:

  • lover: a person who loves
  • scholar: a learned person
  • ripe: fully grown or developed
  • season: any one of the four arbitrary periods into which the year is divided
  • ca: species of carnivorous quadruped of the genus Felis
  • sedentary: fixed to one spot

Let us replace the terms of the first English version with their dictionary definitions:

    The fervent persons who love and austere learned persons
    Love equally, in any one of their fully grown or developed four arbitrary periods into which the year is divided,
    A powerful and gentle species of carnivorous quadrupeds of the genus Felis, the pride of the house,
    Who like them are sensitive to cold and like them fixed to one spot.

On handing (iv) back to Altavista we got:

    (v) Les personnes ardantes qui aiment et les personnes instruites austères,
    Aiment également, dans routes de leur entièrement développé ou développé quatre périodes arbitraires où l'année est divisée,
    Une espèce puissante et douce de quadrupèdes carnivores du genre Felis, la fierté de la maison,
    Qui comme eux sont sensibles au froid et les aiment fixés à une tache.

It has become a joke. But this joke has been made possible by having identified translation and interpretation through definition, and that is by having rigorously (mechanically) respected the (evidently absurd) principle that definition is a form of translation of that which is defined. I should now like to quote the Italian translation by Mario Bonfantini:

    I fedeli d'amore, e gli austeri sapienti
    Prediligon, negli anni che li fanno indolenti,
    I gatti forti e miti, onor dei focolari
    Come lor freddolosi, come lor sedentari.

The translator has decided to vary the (literal) semantic values; for example, with the debatable reference to "fedeli d'amore" (which opens up a list of connotations extraneous to the text). He has rendered the age of maturity with the years of indolence (not an entirely arbitrary decision), because indolence belongs to the same associative field as the sedentary state; he has (legitimately) rendered doux with "miti" (docile) and maison with "focolari" (hearth). The success of the translation is due to the fact that the translator has managed to turn two alternating rhymes (abba) into two rhyming couplets (aabb), and above all he has respected the Alexandrine by using double seven-syllable lines.

In other words, the translator has decided that, over and beyond the literal sense of the French expressions, the effect or main aim to be respected was the poetic one, and that was the card he put all his money on. Debatable as a paraphrase or exact rewording, this translation constitutes an excellent interpretation of the intentions of the text.

This leads us to conclude that translation is a species of the genus interpretation, governed by certain principles proper to translation.

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

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