Scowling or unsmiling?

One of the greatest pleasures of doing art translations is working with the images discussed in the text. In some cases, access to the relevant images while translating is essential for understanding what the art in question actually looks like (more on this in a future post), especially in the field of contemporary art, when even the best, most lucid verbal descriptions can leave one uncertain as to the nature of the artwork being described. But in other cases, images can come to the rescue when a source word can be translated in more than one way—and thus the various translation possibilities would describe quite different imagery.

Saint Andrew the Sullen?

My favourite recent example of a situation in which looking at an image made it possible for me to choose the right translation—and thus preserve the integrity of the author’s text—was a brief but ambiguous description of the facial expression of Saint Andrew in the stained glass windows of the choir in Santa Croce, Florence. The saint was described as being an accigliato type, an adjective which the Zingarelli unabridged Italian dictionary defines as corrucciato, meaning either sullen or cross, and Hoepli defines as having furrowed brows. It seemed odd that an image of Saint Andrew would depict him as sullen or cross, or even frowning, and in fact the Ragazzini Italian/English dictionary does offer a less fraught definition, suggesting ‘unsmiling’ as an option following frowning, scowling and glowering.

What to do? Since the Italian verb on which the adjective accigliato depends, accigliare, means to have furrowed brows, I did not want to water down the description to merely ‘unsmiling’ if the image in question truly was of a scowling Saint Andrew. And so I went on a hunt for the image.

Going straight to the visual source

Knowing from the essay I was translating that the saint was to be found in the ‘north windows’ of the church, I visited a website I had discovered during my research that provides extremely high-resolution close ups of the entire chapel and figured out which set of windows was ‘north’ based on my own knowledge of the space and clues provided elsewhere in the text. The north windows feature no fewer than ten different saints, all unlabelled, and so I used my knowledge of the iconography of Saint Andrew during that historical period (longish, grey, shaggy hair) to narrow down the options. The distinctive saint was not hard to spot, surrounded as he is by bishop saints, youthful saints and female saints, and so it was that I was able see the image that had inspired the author’s choice of the adjective accigliato. And what I found was not a scowling Andrew, nor one with furrowed brows—but simply an Andrew with a downturned mouth, an unsmiling Andrew, as it were. You can judge for yourself in the image at left of the first paragraph of this post—that is him!

A scowl by any other name

Does it seem like a bit too much legwork for deciding between the two adjectives ‘frowning’ and ‘unsmiling’? Perhaps. I could have of course played it safe and chosen ‘unsmiling’ without hunting down the image, since that adjective would have covered all bases, albeit in a rather flat way if the author had meant to emphasis an actual frown. But that is precisely why I opted to do the legwork: since the meaning of accigliato leaned heavily toward furrowed brows, and especially angrily, or disdainfully furrowed brows, I did not want to risk depriving the translation of its descriptive power by unnecessarily choosing a ‘safe’, generic term. And as it would happen, recourse to the actual image revealed that the more emotionally descriptive translation options would have been overkill, and that ‘unsmiling’ was in fact the most accurate choice.

A scholar’s eye for detail

When working with complex texts in the fields of art and culture, where the topic under discussion might range across disciplines, cultures and centuries, having a specialist translating your work can make all the difference. Deep subject knowledge can help the translator catch mistakes in the source text, sidestep pitfalls and avoid garbled content. I think a series of examples from a recent project of mine might serve to neatly illustrate this point.

A linguistic pitfall

While editing an anonymous colleague’s translation of a prestigious new work on Leonardo da Vinci, it became clear that despite being an otherwise outstanding translator, my colleague’s apparent lack of subject knowledge had led him to make a number of unwitting, yet serious, mistakes. In one case, the use of the same spelling in Italian for the names of Judas Iscariot and the apostle Jude (Giuda) led the translator to identify the painted figure of Jude as Judas in a caption for a large-scale detail of the Last Supper, liable to confuse the reader, given the placement of the figure in the fresco and the vastly different roles played by the two in the story narrated by the painting. Knowledge of the Renaissance painting and of the biblical story made the mix-up stand out in high relief in the mock-ups I had been asked to check and reaffirmed my belief in the importance of specialisation.

A source text error

In another instance, the same translator, whether following the source text directly or mistakenly translating it, began a sentence ‘In AD 391, the Emperor Constantine’, and proceeded to describe the construction of Old Saint Peter’s in Rome. What might pass unnoticed by those whose subject strengths lie elsewhere is glaring and obvious to those with greater familiarity with the material. While yes, Constantine was responsible for the building of the basilica, he died in 337, over fifty years prior to the date attributed to his act in the translated text, the sort of mistake that would quickly shake the reader’s confidence in the author.

Garbled content

Similarly, in this same text, the year 1513 was given as when Pope Julius II replaced Old Saint Peter’s with New Saint Peter’s, 1513 being in reality the year of Pope Julius’ death (seven or eight years after he began work on the basilica) and the project itself took well over one year – many, many times over, winding down at the far opposite end of the sixteenth century and beyond. As in the previous case, it was not clear to me whether the error was in the original Italian or introduced into the translation, but an art historian’s knowledge of the infamously long, convoluted history of the building of New Saint Peter’s and the date of this most famous Renaissance pope’s death were enough to make that unfortunate sentence stand out like a flashing neon sign.

Solid writing skills are not enough

The client was extremely pleased with my anonymous colleague’s translation, and expected the final edit to unearth just a typo or two and the odd misplaced punctuation mark or similar. While this admiration was justified by the overall quality of the writing, the above-mentioned problems with the translated text, among others, were enough to give me pause. A specialised translator can work as a real partner with the editor and author of the text, using subject knowledge to correctly translate tricky, densely packed sentences and choose the right path when confronted with a linguistic fork in the road, maintaining and ensuring the integrity of the translated version. On the other hand, lack of familiarity with the subject can quickly and easily lead to unwitting mistakes, along the lines of ‘if you don’t know it is wrong, you can’t know it’s wrong’: in the second and third examples above, where the translator might have thought he had elegantly condensed a convoluted Italian sentence, he had instead created ‘nonsense’ (either that or he unknowingly carried over ‘nonsense’ from the source text).

This experience left me feeling that it had simply not been sufficient for the client to hire a translator with good, proven writing skills; the problems with the final product seemed to demonstrate loud and clear that specialisation is not the ‘cherry on top’ it is often believed to be in the translation sphere, but an ingredient essential to the successful outcome of the work. They should have hired an art translator. 😉