“Theory helps us defend our work before our clients,” says Jayme Costa


Continuing my series on Literary Translation presentations held at the 52nd ATA Annual Conference in Boston, here is a little something about theory.

During the 52nd Annual Conference organized October 26-29, 2011 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Boston, I attended a one-hour presentation entitled Topics in Translation, given by Jayme Costa Pinto, English into Portuguese translator and the head of studies at the Department of Translation and Interpretation with Associação Alumni in São Paulo, Brazil. His literary translations include works by American authors John Updike and Seth Morgan and he has participated in a special training program for interpreters at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

"Many people say that translation theory is only good to give people a teaching job," he said opening the presentation. "However, theory is what helps us defend our work before our clients. It's what helps us create a strong sense of translation that can be taken seriously."

Domestication and Foreignization ― During the session, he focused on two translation theories. The first one was Friedrich Schleiermacher's concepts of domestication and foreignization. The German theologian and philosopher talked about a non-transparent translation process in which a translator can either adapt foreign concepts so that readers can assimilate the general idea, or keep the foreign concepts intact in the translation so that readers can learn about another culture, even if that means having references literally "lost in translation."

As an example, Costa showed an excerpt of a story in English in which one of the characters quotes a nursery rhyme. Then he presented two different translations in Portuguese as possible solutions: one was more literal (foreignization) and kept the original references―albeit unknown to Brazilian readers―while the other was an adaptation (domestication) that used elements of the Brazilian culture to keep the same original idea, but offer familiar references to the reader.

According to the presenter, the same technique has been used on TV shows. A classic example is "I Love Lucy," which was broadcast in Brazil by a TV station that targets a lower-middle class audience. Significant changes were made to the show during the translation process in order to bring it closer to Brazilians, including where Lucy and Ricky Ricardo lived (not New York, but São Paulo) and Ricky's sports preferences (Corinthians soccer team).

Being Literal or Being Natural? ― The second theory discussed by the presenter was Eugene Nida's dynamic-equivalence concept. The American linguist, known for promoting the translation of the Bible throughout the world, proposed a different approach to translation, parting ways with the formal idea that meaning is self-contained within the source text, thereby translation efforts should focus on achieving semantic equivalence. 

Nida's suggestion with the dynamic-equivalence was to emphasize on what is natural and understood in the target language. He would say that, since no two languages are identical―"either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the way symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences"―translators would never be able to achieve an "absolute correspondence" between the source and the target language. Consequently, there is no such thing as an exact translation.

Poetry and Music ― Most of the all-female audience left the presentation with goosebumps after Costa showed two more translation examples: one book of poems and lyrics to a song. 

The first example was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnets from the Portuguese," written in 1845 and published five years later as a collection of poems inspired by the author's courtship and marriage to author Robert Browning. After a brief history lesson on Elizabeth's life, in which he explained how the British writer was inspired by 16th-century author Luís de Camões (hence the "Portuguese" in the title), Costa asked for a volunteer native English speaker to read one poem in English and a volunteer native Portuguese speaker to read the corresponding translation. The Portuguese version by Leonardo Fróes sounds as if it had been originally written in the target language.

Closing the presentation, Costa gave his final literary translation example with the Cole Porter's song "It's De-Lovely" and the Brazilian version "Que De Lindo" sang by Caetano Veloso as a bossa nova song, keeping the rhythm of the original and bringing archaic and sometimes made-up words to life having Rio de Janeiro as a backdrop.