On translating and being translated

Primo Levi, the author of many books, including "The Periodic Table," "The Monkey's Wrench" and "Survival in Auschwitz," died in 1987. This essay, translated from the Italian by Zaia Alexander, appears in English for the first time.

Genesis tells us that the first men had only one language: This made them so ambitious and skillful they began to construct a tower that reached the sky. God was offended by their audacity and punished them subtly: not by striking them with lightning but by confusing their tongues, thus making it impossible for them to carry on with their blasphemous work. It is certainly no coincidence that the story directly preceding this one tells of man’s original sin and punishment by expulsion from paradise. We might conclude that from earliest times linguistic difference had been considered a malediction.

It continues to be a malediction to this day, as anyone knows who has had to live or, worse, work in a country where he did not know the language. Or who has had to cram a foreign language into his brain as an adult, once that mysterious material upon which memories are engraved becomes more refractory. Furthermore, there are many people who believe, more or less consciously, that a person who speaks another language is an outsider by definition, a foreigner, strange and, hence, a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian; that is, etymologically, a stutterer, a person who doesn’t know how to speak, almost a nonperson. In this way, linguistic friction tends to turn into racial and political friction, another of our maledictions.

It should follow that whoever practices the craft of translation or acts as an interpreter ought to be honored for striving to limit the damage caused by the curse of Babel, but this does not usually happen. Since translation is a difficult job, the outcome is often inferior. This gives birth to a vicious circle: Translators are paid poorly and those who are good at it look for a better-paying profession.

Translating is difficult because the barriers between languages are greater than is commonly believed. Dictionaries, particularly the pocket-sized ones used by tourists, may be useful for basic needs, but they constitute a dangerous font of illusion. The same can be said of the computerized, multilingual translators that have been available on the market for some time now. There is almost never any true equivalence between an expression in the source language and its corresponding one in the target language. The respective meanings may overlap in part, but it is rare for them to match, even between languages that are structurally close and historically related.


Invidia (envy) in Italian has a more specialized meaning than envie in French, which also signifies desire, or the Latin invidia, which contains hatred, aversion, as can be seen in the Italian adjective inviso (disliked). It is probable that the origin of this family of words goes back to veder male, which either means to give somebody the evil eye or denotes the discomfort we feel when looking at a person we despise, which is expressed by non possiamo vederla (we can’t stand the sight of her). But then, in each language, the meaning of the term slips off in a different direction.

There do not appear to be languages with a wider or narrower sphere: The phenomenon is capricious. Fregare (rub, scrub, polish, strike, deceive, swipe etc.) in Italian covers at least seven meanings; “to get” in English is practically infinite; Stuhl in German and “stool” in English mean chair but, through a chain of metonymic senses, it would be easy to reconstruct how it came to mean excrement as well. Only Italian seems to be concerned with distinguishing between the words “feather” and “down”: French, English and German don’t care about the difference, and Feder in German signifies four distinct objects -- down, a quill, a pen to write with and any kind of spring.

Other traps for translators are the so-called “false friends.” For remote historical reasons (which would be amusing to investigate case by case) or because of a single misunderstanding, certain terms in one language acquire a totally different meaning, neither kindred nor contiguous with that of the other language. In German stipendium (cf. Italian stipendio, “salary”) means scholarship; statist (cf. Italian statista, “statesman”) is an extra in the theater; kantine (cf. Italian cantina, “wine cellar”) is a canteen; kapelle (cf. Italian capella, “chapel”) is an orchestra; konkurs (cf. Italian concurso “competition”) is bankrupt; konzept (cf. Italian concetto, “concept”) is a rough draft; and konfetti (cf. Italian confetti, “sugar-coated almond”) is confetti. Macarons in French are not macaroni but rather macaroon cookies. “Aperitive,” “sensible,” “delusion,” “ejaculation” and “compass” do not mean in English what they might seem at first sight to us [Italians]. To an Italian they mean: purgative, sensitive, illusion, exclamation, an instrument for describing circles. “Second mate” is the third in command. “Engineer” is not only an engineer in our sense [as we understand it in Italian] but also one who works with motors (“engines”). These “false friends” are said to have cost more than translators dear: After the War, a young aristocrat from our south found herself married to an American train engineer on the basis of a declaration made in good faith but wrongly interpreted.

I do not have the fortune of knowing Romanian, a language loved passionately by linguists, but it must be teeming with false friends and represents a true minefield for translators, especially if friptura (cf. Italian frittura, “fried foods”) is roasted meat, suflet (cf. Italian suffle, “souffle”) is soul; dezmierda (cf. Italian di merda) means to caress; and underwear is indispensabili. Each of the terms listed is a snare for inattentive or inexpert translators, and it is amusing to think that the trap goes in both ways: A German runs the risk of mixing up our statista (statesman) with an extra in the theatre (cf. statist in German).

Other traps for the translator are idiomatic expressions, which are present in all languages but specific to each one. Some of them are easy to decipher, or they are so bizarre that even an inexperienced translator will notice them. I don’t think anybody would write lightheartedly that it really rains “cats and dogs” in Great Britain. At other times the phrase looks more innocent, and it can get confused with plain discourse. The risk of translating word for word, as in the example of a novel in which the well-known benefactor is described as having a skeleton in his closet, is possible though not common.

A writer who does not want to embarrass his translator should abstain from using idiomatic expressions, but this would be difficult, because each one of us, whether speaking or writing, uses idioms without being aware of it. There is nothing more natural than for an Italian to say siamo a posto (we’re OK), fare fiasco (to fail), farsi vivo (to show up), prendere un granchio (to make a mistake), the above cited example non posso vederlo and hundreds of other similar expressions, but they make no sense to a foreigner, and not all of them are explained in bilingual dictionaries. Even Quanti anni hai? (literally, “How many years do you have?”) is an idiomatic phrase: an English or German would say the equivalent of Quanto vecchio sei? (“How old are you?”), which to us [Italians] sounds ridiculous, especially if the question is addressed to a child.

Other difficulties arise from the use of local terms, common in all languages. Every Italian knows that Juventus is the name of a soccer team, and every reader of Italian newspapers knows what is being alluded to with il Quirinale [residence of the president of the Republic], la Farnesina [foreign ministry], Piazza del Gesu [headquarters of the Christian Democrats], via delle Botteghe Oscure [headquarters of the Communist Party]. But if the translator has not been immersed in the culture for a long time, he will be perplexed and no dictionary can help. He will be helped by a sensitivity to linguistics, which is the most potent weapon for a translator but which is not taught in schools, just as the virtue of writing verse or composing music is not taught. This ability enables him to take on the personality of the author he is translating, to identify with him. It serves him when something in the text doesn’t quite add up, doesn’t work, sounds out of tune, makes no sense, seems superfluous or confused. When this happens, it may be the fault of the author, but more often it is a signal that some of the pitfalls described are present, invisible, but with their jaws wide open.

Yet avoiding the snares does not automatically make one a good translator. It is more arduous than that. It has to do with transferring the expressive force of a text from one language to another, and this is a superhuman task. Indeed, certain famous translations (such as the “Odyssey” in Latin and the Bible in German) have signaled a new direction in the history of our civilization.


Nevertheless, since a literary work is born from a profound interaction between the creativity of the author and the language in which he expresses himself, there is an inevitable loss in translation, comparable to the loss when one exchanges currency. This reduction in value is variable, large or small, according to the ability of the translator and the nature of the original text. It is usually minimal with technical or scientific texts (though here, in addition to having a command of the two languages, the translator needs to understand what he is translating and must therefore have a third competence as well) and maximal with poetry (what is left of e vegno in parte ove non e che luca, “and I come to a place where nothing has light,” if it is reduced and translated to giungo in un luogo buio, “I arrive in a dark place”?).

All these “cons” might be intimidating and discouraging for aspiring translators, but some weight can be added to the “pro” side. Translation is more than a work of civilization and peace; it is uniquely gratifying: The translator is the only one who truly reads a text and reads it in its profundity, in all its layers, weighing and appraising every word and every image and perhaps even discovering its empty and false passages. When he is able to find or even invent the solution to a knot, he feels sicut deus [like god] without having to bear the burden of responsibility that weighs on the author’s back. In this sense, the joys and fatigues of translating are related to the process of creative writing as those of grandparents are to parents.

Many ancient and modern writers (Catullus, Foscolo, Baudelaire, Pavese) have translated literary works they felt attracted to, deriving joy for themselves and their readers, and finding a certain release in them, much like a person who takes a day off from his job and devotes himself to doing something different.

One word about the condition of a writer who finds himself being translated. Being translated is a job neither for weekdays nor holidays; in fact, it is not a job at all. It is a semi-passive state similar to that of the patient under the surgeon’s knife or being on the psychiatrist’s couch, rich in violent and contrasting emotions. The author who sees himself on a translated page in a language that he knows feels at one time or another flattered, betrayed, ennobled, X-rayed, castrated, planed, raped, adorned or murdered. It is rare for him to remain indifferent toward a person, whether he knows him or not, who has stuck his nose and his fingers in his entrails: He would gladly send him (one after another or all together) his own heart properly wrapped, a check, a laurel wreath or “godfathers.”