Those of us who work with ‘foreign’ languages - i.e. languages not widely known in our local community - often have to respond to questions such as “but what does it actually say?”, as if the mystery can be penetrated by drilling down from text to paragraph, paragraph to sentence, sentence to phrase, phrase to word. I remember a lawyer ordering a translation of an e-mail in Spanish, but requesting an interlinear version, slotting the English lines in between the Spanish, presumably to see whether I had really put ‘what it said’. Yet as we know, the question of what the original says may be a little more complex than this.
Some time ago, under a previous presidency, there was a demonstration by Latin Americans living in the USA, with the rallying cry “Yes, we can!” (as reported in the English-speaking media). Now that’s not a bad slogan, as Bob the builder and Winston the political jack-in-the-box have been quick to note. Yet that isn’t what the protesting Latinos were shouting – they were actually saying “Sí, se puede!”, and I would have had to tell my lawyer customer that this ‘actually’ said “Yes, it is possible”. Now this would never get a street march cracking, and it could well be argued that such a literal equivalent is a much less ‘faithful’ translation than “yes, we can”, which for my money catches the message perfectly.
Another wonderful example of the same problem occurred recently in Italy. Like most other stories in Italy today, it’s all about their wayward prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. After being criticised for keeping company perhaps more attractive than dignified, he responded with an attack on the Socialist political leader Rosy Bindi, who does not fall into the starlet category, claiming that she was more beautiful than she was intelligent. This angered many of Berlusconi’s critics, particularly women, and started a T-shirt campaign with the slogan “I am not a woman at your disposal!” (again as reported in the English-language media).
This is the inverse situation to “yes, we can”. It tells us exactly ‘what it says’ on all those T-shirts, i.e. “non sono una donna a sua disposizione”, but it doesn’t sound like much of a slogan to me.
Before thinking about a more eloquent alternative, let’s pause to reflect on what happened with “yes, we can”. What was the problem there, and how was it solved?
For reasons I won’t bore you with here, English does not particularly like general, impersonal expressions, so increasingly “it is advisable to” becomes replaced with “you are advised to”, or “we recommend that”. And indeed, this was one of the tenets of the ‘assertive language’ movement”- to make it clear whose opinion is being stated.
Accordingly “yes, it is possible” would have been far too impersonal in English, whereas “sí, se puede” is a lively and motivating statement in Spanish. The solution was therefore to find an equivalent ‘personalised’ expression in English.
So what about our current translation problem, i.e. what to put on thousands of T-shirts to protest against Berlusconi’s chauvinism (in English)?
I think there are two problems with “I am not a woman at your disposal”. The first is that “at your disposal” is much less idiomatic in English than the equivalent phrase is in Italian. For us this is a bookish cliché, lacking the ability to carry strong emotions. So might it be better to say “I am not a woman at your beck and call”?
The second problem is that English nouns, such as “woman” or “man”, tend to be more specific and less generic than nouns in our sister languages in continental Europe. The Italian really means “I am not the kind of woman who ...”, but perhaps we would take a different tack in English. If I had to come up with a slogan for white ribbon day, rather than “I am not a man who accepts violence!” I would cut the noun out, and go for something like “I don’t accept violence – do you?”.
On the other hand, English is rich in nouns with adjectival force, particularly when it comes to insults. In the light of this argument, my preferred translation would perhaps be “I’m not your floozy!”, or “I am not one of your floozies!”.