Language and culture are ingredients baked into the bread of communication — an inconvenient fact but one that sure keeps translation ever-challenging.
A few examples from totally disparate worlds:
Though the old saw about Eskimos having 500 words for snow is actually just a myth, I can assure you that Italians do have many more than that for pasta (1,000 by the BBC’s estimate). For an extra twist — not surprising given that food and language in Italy are both all about region — the same pasta shape often has different names in different regions (or even different neighborhoods!). The pasta section on an Italian menu can become a list of unfamiliar pasta shapes in sauces with special names used only in that region. On the upside, paired with machine translation, this contributes to the venerable tradition of unintentional menu translation humor (example: Penne alla contadina = “Pens at the Peasant”). If you’re translating the menu to inform and tantalize patrons, rather than for laughs, you might leave the dish names in Italian and follow them with a description. Or you might use a gloss, such as “short twisted pasta” for “trofie.”
Film titles are a long-standing translation bugaboo, often drenched in wordplay and cultural references. Consider Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Reality Bites, The Crying Game, and The Kids Are Alright. Movie titles pose an extra challenge: the ultimate question the translator must consider is the purpose of the text, and a major purpose of movie titles is to sell tickets. Italian movie executives apparently thought that a quote from an Alexander Pope poem (“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! “) wouldn’t be box office gold and opted for Se mi lasci ti cancello (“If you leave me, I’ll erase you”). I once brainstormed with a group of translators to come up with a plausible English title for an Italian film called Provincia Meccanica (literally “Mechanical Province”; you see why we didn’t think the literal version would cut it), a reference to the Italian translation of Clockwork Orange (Arancia Meccanica), further complicated by “provincia,” which has heaps of connotations (small town, provincial). Coming up with an English title is an example of what has been termed transcreation. We tried to recreate the intent and effect of the original, fit the context, and have it “work.” No mean task, I tell you.
I often translate CVs for academics and others looking for work beyond Italy. The standard European CV (example on right) breaks just about every rule of resume-writing in the U.S. (example on left). Some aspects, such as including one’s age and marital status, even violate anti-discrimination laws. We don’t put in pictures (unless you’re an actor or model). We keep it to two pages or less. No yawn-worthy laundry lists of past jobs and duties. In the U.S. resumes are meant to be snappy marketing documents to tell the story of how our past jobs made us perfect for this new job.
If a client were applying to U.S. businesses, a “straight” translation would be well-nigh useless. The resumes would never get past the resume-sorting software that almost all U.S. businesses use.
Like transcreation for marketing copy, transforming a typical Italian CV into a successful resume for the U.S. market means taking ingredients — context, content, intent — and making a new recipe, one that might please the palates of the target audience.