Translation or Preservation-Books Will Still Have To Be Forgotten

| | Comments (0)

“In any case, the person who finds this diary will have one certain advantage over me: with a written language it is always possible to reconstruct a dictionary and a grammar, isolate sentences, transcribe them or paraphrase them in another language, whereas I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world’s intentions toward me, and I grope my way, knowing that there can exist no dictionary that will translate into words the burden of obscure allusions that lurks in these things.”

-From Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, page 61


I think that the ways that Calvino works with language is very interesting.  In the above quote, he discusses through one of his characters the idea that translation allows a construct (like a text) to be reconstructed and meaning to be shown to others, while in life this is not so.  It is much harder to take bits and pieces of life and put them together in order to derive meaning.  Life is more linear than text.  This is probably in relation to a point that he discussed near the start of the novel concerning the idea that reading allows for the experience of “youthful pleasures” where “the risk of disappointment isn’t serious” (4).  Reading and translating is less complicated than life, but at the same time less linear than it, which really doesn’t make complete sense to me, but is still a thought provoking idea. 

Calvino actually focuses on ideas of translation a lot.  Chapter three ends with the “Reader” going to a Cimmerian translator, Uzzi-Tuzii, in order to hear the story from which the above quote comes.  Also, the fact that the entire novel itself is translated presents an interesting development in this constant surfacing of the idea of translated information.  I think the best place that the reader can see this is when Calvino writes, “‘That’s a good reason for you to sign,’ they say to her.  They address her familiarly, as tu; they all call one another tu; their speech is half in dialect; these are people used to seeing one another daily year after year…” (18).  I am sure we are all familiar with the fact that many other languages, and specifically Romantic ones like Spanish and Italian have a familiar and formal “you” form.  The Italian and Spanish familiar you seem to be the same, “tu.”  When I read this I was curious to know how this portion was written in the Italian.  I think this, as well as Calvino’s own descriptions in the section above, show that we might have a different perspective of this novel because it is translated. 

This idea has an interesting connection, I think, to Darnton’s chapter 8 in his novel A Case for Books.  Even if, as he says, books should be preserved, we may not be able to understand them in the future.  Think of the difficulty we have even with Shakespeare who is writing in our own language.  We have to read books with footnotes from experts, or even resort to Sparknotes or Cliffnotes in order to understand it fully. 

However, this doesn’t mean I am saying that books don’t need to be preserved.  Yes, they do.  Megan quoted as one of her favorite quotes my favorite quote from the book so far that deals with this.  I would much rather read from the physical book than on the computer screen.  This seems to connect me to the story in a way that the pixels cannot.  Books are safe and allow us to explore and adventure in ways that even the computer cannot allow us because books require imagination.  Even though on one of my previous blogs I disagreed a bit with this statement when it is applied to my own life, I know that the only way I can explore outer space or alternate realities, and even many realistic aspects of life, is through books.  But I do think that we need to realize that although translation is great, every book cannot be translated, and although saving books is awesome, every one cannot be preserved.


See what others have to say about Calvino.

Leave a comment

Type the characters you see in the picture above.