The “translation handbook” method applied to primary sources

Bruno Osimo, Civica Scuola Interpreti e Traduttori – Fondazione Milano

One of the main issues with traditional handbooks is the lack of a diachronic dimension: the student reads, and has the wrong impression that notions developed in the same chronological order as they are presented in the book. Authors, in the students’ mind, are all simultaneously contributing to the result. Obviously, handbook authors often tend to organize notions in their books trying to imagine a mental map of gradual learning and cognitive challenges for students, without any preoccupation with the historical actualization of the different concepts and their actual succession.

Another methodological issue of handbooks is that the ideology of the sources and the ideology of the handbook author are often intermingled, to the point of becoming indistinguishable. So for the student it becomes impossible to form personal, direct ideas about the authors of the past. Students take in a mix of interpretations of past authors’ ideologies and the handbook author’s ideological selection of them.

Since translation science has been a discipline for a very short time, there are many contributions by many different authors who are not classifiable as “translation scholars”, that nonetheless are very important. For this reason, I find it useful to make books using the material of past authors.

I already published a few “Translation Handbooks” of past authors, and I am extending the same method to other authors. Some of them may be poets, linguists, or semioticians, but their contribution to translation science is invaluable. In the article I expose this “handbook” method.

  1. Traditional translation handbooks

Traditional translation handbooks tend to present theories and their authors in a synchronic fashion, because such presentation is necessary to illustrate views so that students can assimilate notions in the order that is deemed the best one by the handbook’s author for the student to be assimilable. Therefore the translation process will be fragmented trying to figure out its stages, and there will be, for example, a chapter on the perception of the prototext, a chapter on the mental workthrough of information, a chapter on the production of the metatext, a chapter on translation criticism, and so on.

In this way students tend to think of notions as simultaneous ideas. Especially during the first years of higher education, students tend not to ask themselves who lived when, or who said what, or did X know Y and had they been discussing a given aspect. They are presented with ready-made constellations of theories, well elaborated by the handbook’s author, that are self-sufficient in themselves, and don’t stimulate readers to wonder what’s the origin of that result. In the paragraph about inner discourse, for example, they may think that Vygotsky, Lotman, Jakobson were colleagues in the same university and in the same time. The fact that these constellations or theories usually do have a name (Skopos, Descriptive, Cultural, Equivalence, and so on) makes the problem even more serious, because the presence of a name confers the idea of something whole, uniform, and stable.

  1. Primary sources and target reader

Such method of producing manuals supports an implicit view (pre-judgement) of the typical first-year student (target reader). It is a reader who is not interested in being aware of the ideological and cultural mediation occurring between the primary sources and result (textbook). They don’t want to know whether the handbook’s author has read Peirce, or Peirce’s interpreters, or the interpreters of Peirce’s interpreters: for them knowledge is an established fact, unchangeable and unaffected by ideologies. It’s enough that it comes from Professors.

This is the reason why primary sources are often directly absent from translation handbooks.

This implies a view of first-year students as people who can’t read directly a primary source, who need an edulcorated version of sources that makes them more palatable even for B-series apprentices (the judgement is implicit in that view).

I don’t agree with that view. I don’t think I am more intelligent or smarter than my students, or that they need my mediation to understand primary sources. Or, maybe, they need my mediation in the form of “subtitles” to the original, not as dubbing that covers and hides completely the original, pretending to be as much authoritative as a primary source.

Moreover, every author of the past has a different style, more or less formal, more or less academic, more or less confused, more or less organized, more or less planned. This is why, if you read the source, you’re not going to forget not only the notion, but also its form, its style, its context. This sort of “affective” context of the quotation helps greatly the students to remember what they read, because in this way no notion is just an anonymous handbook line. Plus, the fact of being able to say to oneself «I have read Lotman in the original» nurtures self-esteem and encourages further research, because such readings are seen as something possible in the future, too.

That’s the reason why I put in my translation handbook (Osimo 1998, 2004, 2010) and in my translation history (Osimo 2002) a lot of direct quotations from primary sources, even by authors who are not standard in the Almanach de Gotha of translation science, either because they had already died when such science began to exist, or because they didn’t consider themselves translation scholars in the first place, even if some of their studies may be useful «to somebody for something in some respect or capacity» (Peirce 2:2:2:228) in our discipline.

  1. Nonstandard translation scholars

The relatively new translation science in some parts of the world still doesn’t exist. This doesn’t mean that no interesting ideas were exposed before its formal creation. For this reason, many contributions to this discipline are to be found outside its ranks, by authors such as semioticians, linguists, psychologists, philosophers, poets, novelists. From a historical point of view, there are two different experiences: one, considering only authors until 1959, describes what non-translation scholars have said about translation. The other one, considering only authors since 1959, describes contributions by translation scientists.

In the first group, many names – even after 1959 – do not traditionally belong to the field of the reflections about translation. Giacomo Leopardi, for example, is the most famous XIX century Italian poet, but he is usually not considered among scholars, much less among translation scientists. Charles Sanders Peirce is the founder of modern semiotics, but before Dinda Gorlée’s attention (1994) nobody ever “used” his writings to shed light on translation. The Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, of course is not famous for his opinions on translation. Yuri Lotman, the founder of cultural semiotics, has used many times the word «translation» (perevod), but only recently there has been interest in him as a translation theoretician. And even Roman Jakobson, who wrote the often-quoted 1959 article, apart from it is not considered a cornerstone of translation theory.

All these essayists, classical authors outside translatology proper, are directly present with their own texts as precious sources in my handbooks and in my articles.

  1. Defying the dichotomy between teaching and research

In the field of translatology, part of the research work consists in a synthesis of writings by different authors of the past. Inferences about the workings of the mind during the translation processes, for example, can be made on the basis of past modeling hypotheses. By way of illustration, Peirce’s writings are a huge mass of often non ordered pages, and time will never suffice to exhaust the whole material, that is an immense quantity of food for thought about translation.

By reading quotations from Peirce in translation classes, and asking the students to discuss passages and to give their interpretations to texts, the result is usually very interesting and usually sheds new light on possible developments of theoretical interpretation.

In this way, teaching activity and research activity are not completely different and antithetical spheres of work: they somewhat overlap and contribute to each other.

  1. Previous personal experience

In 2014 I published Il manuale del traduttore di Giacomo Leopardi (Giacomo Leopardi’s Translation Handbook). To make this book, I used Leopardi’s private diary (Zibaldone) choosing what I deemed interesting quotations about translation. I arranged these quotations so as to form three chapters and thirty-four paragraphs that follow not Leopardi’s vision, but my own vision of his text as a translation manual. In this way I’m offering translation scholars the opportunity to draw on Leopardi as a source for their reasonings on translation.

In 2015 I published Roman Jakobson’s Translation Handbook, with a similar structure.

I’m planning a book based on the same pattern having Lotman as a subject.

Feedback is welcome by colleagues on this way to approach translation science teaching.

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