What does “traduttore, traditore” mean?

Translated literally, the Italian adage “traduttore, traditore” in English means “translator, traitor.”

If you don’t understand at first, don’t worry. That’s kind of the point.

The literal translation of this phrase isn’t all that useful at conveying what the adage actually means. This is because the phrase is an idiom and a play on words that loses its meaning when strictly translated to another language.

Fittingly, this loss of meaning in translation perfectly illustrates the definition of the phrase itself.

Traduttore, traditore refers to the concept that “translation is always a betrayal of the true meaning of the original.” In essence, no translation can ever fully convey the full depth of meaning, emotion, and context as the original work intended.

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Tradutorre Traditore for language localization

What do you do when the right words don’t exist?

When a word or phrase in one language has no direct translation or otherwise wouldn’t make sense in the target language, this is known as a lexical gap. Part of the reason translated works lack the context and meaning of the original comes from the fact that translators often have to fill in these lexical gaps themselves. This might mean using a similar word or phrase that almost means the same thing but has subtle differences. Or, it could mean making adjustments to word choices to slightly alter the meaning of the text itself so the translation fits.

Either way, someone reading the original text right next to the translated text would surely notice the difference in meaning.

How do you preserve the beauty and structure of poetry and songs?

Poems make use of rhyme, meter, and stanzas to form beautiful, often emotional stories. One must only think of a favorite poem or treasured verse to understand how difficult it would be to translate the words into another language.

  • What if the directly translated words do not rhyme, as the original did? Should a translator accept that the translation will not rhyme, or should he make an effort to choose alternate words that do rhyme but don’t mean exactly the same thing as the original word choice?
  • Even if the words do rhyme, what happens when they have a different number of syllables than the original poem’s words? That would throw off the whole rhythm and meter of the verse. Again, should the translator accept that fact, or choose new words?
  • What if the translator chooses to preserve the rhyme and rhythm of the poem in exchange for choosing his own words that fit into the right structure? If those words are “close enough” in meaning to the original, it might work. But if the translator makes too many substitutions, or if he stretches some definitions to make words fit, has the poem lost its original meaning and emotional gravity?
  • At the end of this process, has the translator actually translated the poem? Or has he crafted a new poem entirely from his own choices of words?

And what about puns or plays on words?

Think about the “traduttore, traditore” phrase itself. In Italian, the two words are pronounced with a similar sound and emphasis that makes it clear the adage is a play on words. In English, however, “translator” and “traitor,” the direct word translations, do not have that same sound and emphasis. While they both begin with “t” and still form an alliteration, the pronunciation is different enough that an English speaker would not recognize that the phrase is supposed to be a play on words.

On the Wikipedia page for “Untranslatability,” they offer a viable alternative to the Italian original:

“A… solution can be given, however, in Hungarian, by saying a fordítás: ferdítés, which roughly translates as ‘translation is distortion’.”

But a translator tasked with translating a piece into a specific language would not have the freedom to choose any language that has a viable solution. He would have to use the language the client has requested. Indeed, even if he did have the freedom of choice to select the best fit out of all languages, it would not be reasonable to expect a single translator to know every other language in order to choose the best fit!

“Traitor” or scapegoat?

You can see how this can be a tough line for a translator to walk with care.

Reputable translators strive for accuracy in regular nonfiction document translations. A legal brief, for example, would rely extremely heavily on the accuracy of its translated words in reference to the original. Any poor choices of words could have huge ramifications for a legal case.

But when a piece deals with poetry or puns, which is more important? Evocative emotions and preserved wordplay, or strict accuracy of word choice?

Either direction the translator chooses to go, something will get lost.

As a result, the finished translation will almost always lose some of its qualities along the way. As the translator is responsible for choosing how to address these problems, blame often falls on him when the finished product falls short.

For example…

Consider this phrase’s origin:

While Oxford University Press explains that no one truly knows who coined the phrase itself, the origin story of this interesting adage comes from 14th century Italy.

When Dante Alighieri penned his work, The Divine Comedy, it later gained recognition as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. Certainly, it is considered the first great work written in the Italian language (as opposed to Latin, the tradition at the time).

When French translations began circulating, Italians were not pleased. They felt that the French translators had lost the original poem’s meaning. The translated work, evidently, could not capture the emotions and imagery of the Italian version. Not only that, but the accuracy and word choice of certain translations fell short of expectations.

As a result of the cultural competition between France and Italy that raged during this time, Italians directed their anger from this perceived slight onto the translators who had corrupted their beloved literary masterpiece. Thus, “the translator is a traitor” was born in the form of “traduttore, traditore.”

Tradutorre Traditore for content localization

These famous examples of traduttore, traditore get to the heart of the issue.

The Importance of Being Earnest:

“How does one translate the title – and all corresponding names and events – of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest? Several French translations exist that capitalize on first names like Fidèle and Constant, both of which also carry with them an emotional weight – that of fidelity. But certainly fidelity and earnestness are different concepts, and even though the double-entendre is preserved, the meaning is altered.”

Translated verses from the Bible:

“The oldest well-known examples are probably those appearing in Bible translations, for example, Genesis 2:7, which explains why God gave Adam this name: ‘God created Adam out of soil from the ground’; the original Hebrew text reveals the secret, since the word Adam connotes the word ground (being Adama in Hebrew), whereas translating the verse into other languages loses the original pun.”

What techniques do translators use to overcome lexical gaps from language to language?

As we discussed earlier, the first option translators often choose involves selecting a word or phrase that matches closely enough that the text still makes sense. It might not fit exactly, but it should work well enough to help readers understand the major points with enough context. With this solution, poems, songs, puns, palindromes, and other texts where the word sound and structure matters more than the word itself would still make sense.

On the opposite side, the translator might choose to use the most direct translation possible in order to retain the exact definitions. This sacrifices the play on words aspects or the rhyme and meter of poems, but it also preserves the accuracy of the work at all costs. Translation of legal documents would obviously fall under this category, as would scientific papers, historical records, and any other work where the original meaning must not be corrupted. 

A third option exists that can check both boxes for accuracy and word choice, if neither compromise would work in a particular translation. You might have read documents before where certain foreign phrases are kept untranslated and italicized to show that they’ve been borrowed from the original language. This solution can work if the meaning of the phrase is either well-known in the target language or obvious from the surrounding context.

Take these hypothetical judgment calls as examples:

  • Since no direct translation of the French phrase déjà vu exists in English, English speakers have become accustomed to using this borrowed phrase in its original language. Most English speakers would understand the meaning of this phrase even though it remains untranslated.
  • On the other hand, many English speakers would not recognize the untranslated phrase répondez s’il vous plaît. In this instance, unless the surrounding context very clearly explains the meaning of this phrase, the translator should probably use the acronym RSVP that most English speakers would understand.

As a content creator, why should you care about the idea behind traduttore, traditore?

While a reputable translator can discern most cases where a direct translation or a more fluid interpretation would work, you can always help them out.

Let your translator know if you have a strong preference for preserving the strict accuracy or conveying the same evocative emotions as your original work. By giving your preference upfront, you can eliminate a lot of the pressure on your translator to make the appropriate choice on his own.

By understanding the difficulties of translation, you will also go into the process with realistic expectations and likely end up happier with the end result.