Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Translating etymology and philology

When word choice is influenced by etymology or philology rather than surface meaning, it can be challenging for a target readership to decipher. For the translator, these underlying layers of meaning can be difficult to render to a target audience, further removed from these initial cultural references.
Etymology and philology are inextricably weighed down by the unique social, political and historical contexts of a given language community. The word is, in effect, a suitcase which we - the reader, translator, the critic – tend to view from a far. Rarely will we venture close enough to unpack a word. When we do, we realise that baggage inspection can be a risky business.
For example, one suggestion regarding the derivation of posh relates to India under British colonial rule. Pale-skinned expatriates would avoid the sun by standing on one side of the boat in the morning, and on the other at sunset, leading to the acronym Port Out Starboard Home. Is this a reliable story? The OED refutes this explanation but concedes it is part of ‘folk etymology’. In other words, although it may be erroneous, the explanation is widely believed.
Opening a suitcase suddenly becomes complicated when we can’t agree on its contents. Yet if a translator perceives that a source author is trying to convey these complicated meanings, can they be brought over to a target language?
Translation (from Latin translat- 'carried across') implies the notion of journey, yet often a word’s etymology will be lost along the way. Possible word-for-word translations of posh into other languages run the risk of losing these etymological meanings: pijo in Iberian Spanish (of uncertain origin according to the Real Academia Española) and alinhado in European Portuguese (from Old French lignage, from Latin linea 'a line’ according to the latest Dicionário Onomástico Etimológico da Língua Portuguesa ).
In “What is a Relevant Translation?” Dérrida is preoccupied with the transfer of a word’s cultural baggage from one language to another, going as far as to question whether it can leave the ‘airport’ at all. But is it therefore viable to ignore these meanings altogether? Venuti bemoans the tendency to domesticate when translating into English, and this could certainly be seen as an extension of this process.
At the end of “La reivindicación del Conde don Julián” (The Revenge of don Count Julián) Juan Goytisolo presents the Spanish reader with clusters of Spanish words of Arabic origin such as “algodón, algarrobo, alfalfa” (cotton, carob, lucerne). The stylistic effect here attempts to undermine the then Francoist claims of Spanish’s linguistic and ethnic purity. Approaching the translation of this cluster into English, I feel that two strategies are feasible. One would be to maintain the words as they are in Spanish, thus maintaining the Arabic overtones suggested by the prefix al- (Arabic: the) of which many English speakers would be aware . Essentially, the English text is foreignised. The second would be to introduce a Francophone element into the target text, leading to coton, caroube and lucerne. The English text is once more foreignised. Or is it? While this replicates the philology of English, or the influence of French in English, the cultural baggage of these words is transferred to a target setting. As a means of preserving the baggage of the source language, the first strategy is most successful.

-- Andrew Nimmo is a translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and French into English. His areas of interest include music, journalism, fiction and film. You can contact him at

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