Traduttore traditore, usually translated as ‘the translator is a betrayer’, is probably the only Italian expression in my active vocabulary. And other than dictionaries and suchlike, Umberto Eco’s La ricerca della lingua perfetta must be the only Italian book on my shelves. So there is something peculiarly congruous about my discovering, earlier today, a disconcerting translation error in that book.
On page 98 and 99 of the English-language edition, In Search Of the Perfect Language, I came across a passage claiming that for the German reformer Martin Luther, ‘German was the language closest to God.’ Statements of that sort can easily be found about Hebrew, Arabic, Tamil, Korean and some other languages, possibly including German. Yet flowing from Luther’s quill, it somehow seemed out of character.
I decided to track down the original. It’s not an easy task to Google for a quote whose exact original wording you don’t know, but I’m fairly confident I’ve found Eco’s source. It runs, …weil sie den deutschen Beter näher zu seinem Gott führt als alle Fremdsprachen. In literal translation, it means ‘because it (= the German language) brings the German praying man closer to his God than all the foreign languages’. Incidentally, it wasn’t Luther himself who wrote this; it was the twentieth-century German historian Arno Borst who thus paraphrased the reformer’s view on the matter.
It’s hardly an outrageous or even remarkable observation, I’d say. If talking to other human beings is easiest in one’s first language, then the same is undoubtedly true when it comes to conversing with the Supreme Being.
So what is it that makes Borst’s original line sound so much more reasonable than Eco’s translation? The crucial bit is the object, ‘the German praying man’. In omitting this, Eco makes it seem as if for Luther, German has a wondrous capacity for bringing anybody, regardless of their mother tongue, closer to God – almost as if God himself spoke German. That statement would fit neatly into Eco’s argument that modern Europeans took the glorification of their languages to preposterous heights. They did, to be sure, and other, lesser-known Germans of the era may well have been among them. But not Luther.
Or was it the English translator who lapsed here, rather than the great author? No, James Fentress is innocent. In the Italian version, the crucial words are equally absent: il tedesco è la lingua che più di tutte avvicina a Dio. No praying man to be found.
I’ve just realised that I know one more Italian expression: se non è vero, è ben trovato – ‘even if it’s not true, it’s a good story.’ But this particular book of Eco’s is non-fiction, so ben trovato won’t cut it. And the line about Luther is more than just ‘not true’ in some innocent detail; it looks suspiciously as if it’s been doctored.
A quote from Luther himself confirms the idea that Eco’s quote cannot be correct: Ich halte es gar nichts mit denen, die nur auff eyne sprache sich so gar geben und alle andere verachten. This is 16th-century German, so I do not completely understand it, but a fair translation seems to be, ‘I don’t agree with those who commit themselves to one language and hold all the other ones in contempt.’
I just spotted a little flaw in James Fentress’s English translation that is funny rather than disconcerting. On page 85, one Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero is mentioned, a 16th-century scholar with rather brilliant linguistic insights. It so happens that I’ve heard of him before – but to non-Italians, he’s known as Joseph Justus Scaliger, a Frenchman who taught and died in the Netherlands. Admittedly, his father was an Italian, but even his name wasn’t Scaligero; it was dalla Scala.
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