There is an Italian saying:
"a translator is a traitor"
Is it true?

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If you ever needed translations maybe you wondered "What is so special about doing a translation, where is the difficulty? You only have to replace words in a language with the same ones in another language." Well, it's not exactly so.

I started translating a bit by accident. I had learned English because I liked it, also by staying several times in United Kingdom and reading several music books that I couldn't find in Italian. Then it happens that somebody knows you know a language and they ask you "Can you please translate these?... Can you help me?..." So I started, but soon I realised that it was not only about "replacing words in one language with the same ones in another language", but that it was necessary to tackle problems created by untranslatable words or sentences and, in a way, rewrite the text. Then simply for my personal interest, I started reading books on how to translate, books explaining how to tackle and solve these problems, and so far I've done several translations of musical subjects (four books on violin and viola playing, one about an opera, two musical tales, an educational music computer game) and much more.

Testimonials about my translations

"I have every confidence in the thoroughness of Monica's work, and no hesitation in recommending her to others who need an efficient and cost-effective translation service."

Andrew Spinelli

"There are many different ideas about what makes a good translation, and different kinds of translation job doubtless call for different kinds of expertise. Often it is said that a translator should always translate into his or her native language. I disagree. As a scholar, what I want to be sure of is that the translator has understood every nuance of the original text as accurately as possible. That means I prefer to employ a native user of the language the text is written in, and preferably someone with an expert understanding of the subject being discussed. I have been very happy with Monica Cuneo's translations of various Italian texts concerned with opera. She has translated them with great fidelity, explained the 'untranslatable' where appropriate, and her expert knowledge of music has allowed her to confidently understand a lot of specialised terminology. Furthermore, she does not consider translation to be a one-step process, and has happily answered questions and responded to suggestions concerning her translations, the first versions of which we have treated as 'work in progress'. For anyone who wants this sort of active relationship with a translator, I recommend her very highly indeed."

Prof. David Chandler
Professor in English Literature, Doshisha University, Kyoto
for whom I translated articles for his book about the opera La Nave

Read one of my music translations: a concert programme for the London Symphony Orchestra, Shostakovich Cello concerto (my name is at the end of the article).

Automatic translations?

In Italian there is the expression "traduttore, traditore" ("a translator is a traitor") which expresses the possibility, the risk that by translating a text its meaning or style can get betrayed.

An automatic translator will surely be a traitor of the text, because it cannot understand the nuances, the differences in context and therefore the specific meaning of a word, it cannot understand when to translate literally (word for word) or change words in order to keep the sense.

An automatic translator is good to understand more or less the meaning of a not too complicated text or to have a good laugh, but if you need a properly done translation, it has to be done by a professional translator. Moreover, in all languages many words have more than one meaning depending on the context; there are conventions, some things have to be translated while others don't and an automatic translator is very unlikely to be able to recognize all this.

There are several programs that, in a way, do some sort of automatic translation. What they actually do is this: they store in a memory all the expressions or technical words translated, so that if the same text, or another one, contains a sentence that has already been translated and saved (by the translator) in the memory, the program prompts the translator to use that same translation and saves him a good deal of time. Anyway, it's always the translator who, at the beginning, decides how to translate a particular sentence or word and saves it.

This software to help with translations (called CAT tools, Computer Assisted Translation tools) are used especially to translate texts where the same sentences are repeated many times and have to be always the same, like for example, technical manuals with instruction for use and all software. If the translator had to manually re-translate the same sentences it would take him much longer and there could be some slightly different translations for the same sentence. Anyway, for the translation of literary and specialist texts, they'll need to be done by hand.

it's another kettle of fish

As already said, some expressions don't exist in another language, or rather, each language has its own typical expressions and to me knowing them is fascinating, because they make you better understand the culture of a country, of a people.

Translated literally, these idiomatic phrases don't make any sense at all, therefore the translator has to understand what they mean in the source language and then find an equivalent or similar expression in the target language that keeps the sense, the original meaning, even though with different words. Here are a couple of examples.

In Italian È un altro paio di maniche literally means, roughly, It's a different pair of sleeves, which in English doesn't make sense but whose meaning corresponds to It's another kettle of fish.

Another example is the proverb One swallow doesn't make summer. In Italian there is a very similar proverb, the only difference is that is states: Una rondine non fa primavera, which means One swallow doesn't make spring, because swallows arrive to Italy earlier during their migration from Africa. Another example is when you want to say that something costs you a lot, in English they say It costs an arm and a leg, while in Italian they say Costa un occhio della testa, which means It costs one of your eyes.  Therefore a literal translation would be "correct" but would not reflect this proverb usage in another country (therefore, it would actually be wrong). So, it has to be adapted to the other country usage (by the way, this is called "localization").

As you can see, such expressions are funny, but if translated badly they can distort a text and make it incomprehensible.

The importance of being faithful

Here is another example of a translation in which keeping the text meaning is necessary and more important than translating the exact words, for lack of a corresponding word: it is the title of the play The importance of being earnest, by Oscar Wilde. This is exactly the case where the translator can really become a traitor of the (double) meaning of the text and of the author's intentions. Oscar Wilde plays with the omophony (same sound) of the words earnest and Ernest: being it a play, to be performed in a theatre, rather than a novel to be read, the audience hears the same sound of the two words, they don't see them written, therefore the pun can exist.

Ernest is simply the name Ernesto
earnest means serious, honest, convinced, in good faith, sincere...

Since in Italian there is no word that sounds like the name Ernest and has also the other meaning, it is necessary to find a different word that encloses both meanings.

I've seen this title translated in different ways, more recently translated as L'importanza di chiamarsi Ernesto, (The importance of being called Ernest) which translates the word earnest in Ernesto, thus emphasizing the male name. However, by doing this, all the double meaning is lost. The play amply exploits the double meaning deriving from the presence of a man by name Ernest who was earnest, that is serious, honest, convinced, in good faith, sincere... (I wonder how the translator managed to render in Italian the all the witticism that in the original text has a double meaning!)

Since Wilde in the title writes earnest (not Ernest), it means that he meant to give more importance to the personal quality than to the name. Moreover, in the play there are a lot of equivocations and it's clear that Wilde wanted to emphasize the importance of being serious, honest, convinced, in good faith, sincere...

In Italian there is a male name, Franco, that can lend itself to this double meaning and in the past I had seen this title translated in L'importanza di essere franco. Indeed, franco (frank) also means honest, sincere and therefore, even though it's not the exact

Specialized translations

A professional translator can translate any general or slightly technical text, but if the translation requires the specific knowledge of a subject, it's necessary that the translator is specialized in that subject, because he'll know the technical terms used, the procedures, the situations and thus will be able to understand the original text properly and explain it in another language. That's why translators often have, or have had, also another job or specialist study (for example they have a degree in medicine, engineering, law, geology etc.) that enables them to translate highly specialized texts.

This applies also to musical translations and, indeed, several times I couldn't find in dictionaries (they are limited, anyway) the translation of some words typical of musicians' language, but I was able to translate them because I knew their meaning and usage from experience or from sources other than dictionaries. Here is a musical example.

Paganini and the translator

Paganini, it's well known, had made a pact with the devil, so he was able to perform things "impossible" for ordinary mortals. I guess it must have been really so, because time ago, on a large circulation Italian music magazine, I read an article about something even more mysterious (at least for me, at the start of the reading) that Paganini often did in his compositions, in particular the article referred to a concerto for violin and orchestra. Paganini iperaccordava (hypertuned or overtuned), used the iperaccordatura (hypertuning/overtuning). Now, I play the viola, however I had not yet come across this practice, I couldn't figure out what this was. Initially I thought it really was something newly discovered about Paganini. Then I read that the article was a translation from English and I tried to imagine how it might have been written in English. Eventually I realised that the article was about Paganini's habit (a habit generalized until the end of 19th century) of using the scordatura (mistuning), that is a tuning of the instrument that's different from the usual.

Paganini often tuned his violin differently from the normal way. In this case, the article referred to the concerto in "D major" which was actually written in E flat for the orchestra, with the solo violin part in D, but with the violin tuned a semitone higher than normal (exactly the same trick used by Mozart for the viola in his sinfonia concertante for violin, viola and orchestra). And this is the iperaccordatura! Apparently that article translator didn't know much about music and even less about violin and he even invented a word in his attempt to translate.

Therefore, pay special attention to which translator you entrust with your translations.

Concert in the garden

To finish with an allegro (cheerful) note, the following could be the result of the perfect literal translation of a concert programme, although it could also be a presentation of floral compositions or a lecture in a botanical garden with musical entertainment. Enjoy the concert!

"The best representative in this field, that he cultivated and enlarged like nobody else before him, and to whom we owe a rich flourishing of compositions, tonight William Primrose is with us to delight us with his viola and the field flower, under the direction of the master gardener and his group of musical flowers.
We'll be cheered up also with melodies by little birds and we'll be able to enjoy the water music and music for some royal fireworks."

See the correct translation

To see the music books I translated, go from Translations to Violin and viola books and to La Nave

If you need translations, contact me

Monica Cuneo helps violin & viola players play free from pain, injuries and stage fright

I help violin & viola players play freely, without pain, injuries and stage fright.
Click here to learn how

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"The best representative in this field, that he cultivated and enlarged like nobody else before him, and to whom we owe a rich flourishing of compositions, tonight William Primrose is with us to delight us with his viola and Flos Campi, under the direction of Maestro Gardiner and his group Flores Musicae.
We'll be cheered up also with melodies by Uccellini and we'll be able to enjoy the Water Music and Music for the Royal fireworks.

*required field

Monica Cuneo helps violin & viola players play free from pain, injuries and stage fright

I help violin & viola players play freely, without pain, injuries and stage fright.
Click here to learn how

Shoulder rest or not?

Books I translated

About the opera La Nave

Letture consigliate
Mie traduzioni


Vuoi un seminario sul Nuovo Approccio Havas?


Articoli su Kato Havas e Nuovo Approccio

Kato Havas mi ha "dato il la"

Ricordo personale di Kató Havas - Articolo

Kato Havas su Archi Magazine

Kato Havas obituaries, on The Strad and The Times

Here below are the original versions of the books I translated into Italian

Recommended readings

Some comments about my viola and violin teaching from my pupils

Articles on Kato Havas and the New Approach

Articles on Kato Havas

Recommended readings to eliminate physical injuries and stage fright

Click on them to read each book's description

I translated them into Italian,
you can see them here

Stage fright
Its causes and cures

A New Approach to violin playing

A New Approach
to violin playing

The twelve lesson course by Kato Havas

The twelve lesson