Conceptual Concetto

traduttore-traditore-canis-canonI’ve written a lot about the difficulties of translation this year. As an Italian translator, the well-known play on words traduttore traditore (translator traitor) warrants some explanation. Here we have two words that are almost, but not quite, homonyms (like “see” and “sea”). We don’t always consider the ethical implications of reading a work in translation. We might assume it is the author’s work brought to the readers in a new language that does a perfect job of conveying the original meaning. It’s just the same words in a new language, right?

Seems like the Italians have a bone to pick with the task of the translator. Their little saying seems to imply something is lost or even betrayed when a word/phrase/sentence/novel gets translated. Not so hard to believe. Earlier posts about dialect highlight the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in phrasing. Even thinking about slang terms and their formal equivalent in English it’s easy to see how the emotional intent of a greeting like “what’s good” isn’t exactly the same as “hello”.



So when a translator has to find an equivalent for something like “what’s good” they might pick out a colloquial greeting like “tutt’ a post”. Thing is, even if these phrases might imply a similar level of familiarity, they aren’t the same words and they don’t mean the same thing. It’s getting the gist, but the specifics of each phrase only exist in their respective languages. Something is lost and the translator becomes a traitor to the original.

There’s a big, heavy tome of a book, the “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon” (edited by Barbara Cassin), which relates to this ongoing linguistic betrayal. It’s not exactly light reading, but it’s full of examples where a word in one language  doesn’t have a total equivalence in another language, even if there’s a word designated to represent it.Dictionary of UTrans

One example from Italian (where else?) is the word concetto. Going from Italian to English, it would seem like an obvious switch to the cognate “concept”. Yet, this exhaustive text reveals to the (very) patient reader how this apparent no-brainer is an oversimplification.

From the Latin root conceptus, the DoU takes us on an etymological field trip that traces the word’s meaning through the interpretations of vastly influential thinkers including Macrobius, Thomas Aquinas,  and Dante. “Literally, conceptus designates the fetus conceived in the womb of the mother, but already [Latin philosopher and grammarian] Macrobius (fifth century) used it in the derivative sense to say that intentions are born from a mental concept.”

But it’s not done yet: “For [medieval Christian philosopher and theologian] Aquinas, the conceptus– which he also calls conceptioratio, or verbum mentis– is a purely ideal object, an internal product existing in the mind in an ‘intentional’ rather than a real way.”


Finally we move from Latin conceptus to Italian concetto: “In [Tuscan author of The Divine Comedy] Dante, concetto shows an amazing autonomy [a big difference in the way the word is interpreted] with respect to the Latin conceptus…Idea, concept, thought, image, intention, (in the sense of an intellectual and artistic project), an act of creative imagination, the concetto thus tends very early on to designate a number of intellectual activities.”

Kudos to you for making it through that onslaught of terminology!

Point is, a word like concept and its Italian counterpart concetto have this whole philosophical history that separate what might seem like an easy translation. Is your concetto my idea? Maybe it’s more of an image? Maybe it’s a thought? And does your interpretation betray the original meaning? Is it the translator’s fault? Are they some kind of traduttore?

If you ask me, it’s just part of what makes language diversity so beautiful. Maybe now you’ll think twice before considering anything a “literal” translation.