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Strategizing Over Dialect

The blaring normality of today’s standardized language environment might suggest otherwise, but the uniform language of today was built upon the building blocks of dialect. Standard Italian, for instance, descends from the Tuscan dialect used by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy, while Modern English was born from the fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. Despite the fundamental importance of dialect in language development, however, an aversion at best exists within society in both a political and, sometimes, to a literary degree. The scenario is comparable to the cornerstone in the Wailers song of the same name: “the stone that the builder refused/will always be the head cornerstone”. Dialect is both a stone that is refused and the corner stone of language at the same time.

Literary translators, in contrast, tend to regard dialect as one of their worthiest challenges. Finding the right word in translation is never a simple task one can always relegate to the authority of a dictionary or the convenience of translation software, yet when caught in that situation, there are several conundrums which result from translating dialect.

Figure 1: Photograph of Ezra Pound, modernist poet and translator (n.d.)

The Use of Archaism

In an anthology of translation essays for which he was editor, translation scholar Lawrence Venuti cites two examples of dialect consciously used as a building block of modern literature: German poet Rudolf Borchardt reviving archaic German dialects in a contemporary version of Dante –itself written in Tuscan dialect, as mentioned earlier– and modernist giant Ezra Pound who, along with his numerous experiments with language, used a translation strategy called archaism to translate a poet named Guido Cavalcanti (Venuti, 2012, pg. 12). While archaism served as a tool to further Pound’s ambitious vision of modernism, it also lends itself as a useful strategy for translating older works of literature.

While archaism has great potential as a strategy, it runs into the fundamental roadblock all dialect translation faces: the dialect of the source language is unlikely to match up with the dialect in the target language. As Venuti writes regarding Pound: “the translation discourse [Ezra Pound] chose for Cavalcanti –“pre-Elizabethan” English poetry– doesn’t match medieval Tuscan in any chronological sense” (Venuti, 2012, pg. 12). Chronology, however, is only one of the challenges involved in translation. Like all regional (and many international) manifestations of culture, dialects are grounded in the landscape from which they originated. Archaism in an older English will contain a different geographic conveyance than language grounded in the landscape of Tuscany.

Figure 2: Guido Cavalcanti, 13th century Italian poet (n.d.)

If, however, Pound’s goal of “preserving the cantabile” (Venuti, 2012, pg. 12) is shared by the detached translation scholar, the possibilities of success are present in that case depending on the musicality of the source and target language.

Do Dialects Have Equivalence?

Equivalence, as mentioned earlier, is the underlying issue when it comes to translating dialects. While there is a national language of Hungary or China, there isn’t a Fujian dialect in the Hungarian lands any more than there’s a Transylvanian Hungarian dialect in China. From that perspective, the search for equivalences between dialects appears to be a fruitless quest.

Figure 3: Lawrence Venuti, translation scholar (2022)

One equivalence tends to remain constant, however. As dialects are frequently preserved in rural areas, literature that utilizes dialect often has a rural origin, an estatement especially accurate in the modern era, where modern standard communication has demolished dialectical differences. Even then, as indicated by the aforementioned geographical observation, the rural equivalence ends here. The issue with equivalences, with both dialects and any other type of literary translation, is that they do not exist in a vacuum. As Venuti writes, “Translation theories that privilege equivalence must inevitably come to terms with the existence of “shifts” between the foreign and translated texts, deviations that can occur in several linguistic levels and categories” (Venuti, 2012, pg. 122).

Opacité and Translation

In certain novels with a postcolonial relevance, an artistic technique called opacité is used. In the case of Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau, he uses Martinican creole phrases interchangeably with French, a phenomenon that it can be notably perceived in his novel Texaco. Like pre-postmodern novels with language interchanges by the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Curzio Malaparte, the solution in translation is refreshingly simple: keep the Martinican Creole in the English translation just as the French in Tolstoy is generally kept in its original French. Both cases represent expressions of authenticity that transcend monolingualism, but where Tolstoy and Malaparte’s use of French parts with Chamoiseau’s use of Creole is with language directive: while both Tolstoy and Malaparte knew that their readers would understand the French lingua franca, the ignorance French readers –and subsequently non-French readers in translation– have of Martinican Creole is exactly the point. Opacité is meant to be opaque, as Chamoiseau said in an interview: “truth can be opaque and authenticity can be expressed in an opaque manner…It even seems to me that one could not express the truth of a culture, of a people, of a country without opacity.” (Rejouis, 1999, pgs. 346-347)

Figure 4: Patrick Chamoiseau photographed by Florian Cella (2016)

While the artistic value of opacité is self-evident in that certain deep truths about a culture may be impossible to express, the simple solution of preserving opacité may conflict with a translator’s goals of greater cultural understanding. How, one may ask, can a reader understand a deeper truth about Martinican culture if its Creole language is inaccessible? In the politics of translation it relates to a tendency among Irish Gaelic writers to intentionally not allow their works to be translated into English. Chamoiseau, however, connects his utilization of opacité with truth (Rejouis, 1999, pgs. 347). To translate the Martinican Creole in his novel Texaco is to betray the author’s artistic expression, therefore any translator who translates the Martinican Creole –or who even adds a glossary to the translation– is unfaithful to the author. Hence a translator would have to make a tough decision: please the reader, or be faithful to the author? While Rejouis’ translation of Texaco contains much to be criticized, she chose faithfulness to the author in this respect.

Putting aside the differences between dialects and Creoles – for the purposes of literary translation, they occupy the same marginal space– opacité lends itself as an answer to conveying the peculiarity of regional dialects into the target language. The easiest solution would be to preserve the untranslatables, but if authors today sought to preserve their regional dialect in literature today, translators would have a number of techniques at their disposal that were either nonexistent in previous times or not considered.

Figure 5: Photograph of Carlo Emilio Gadda, author of That Awful Mess on The Via Merulana (n.d.)


There are a number of strategies a translator can use to convey the uniqueness of the world’s vast and beautiful array of dialects. This is true not only of literature written wholly in regional dialects, but those that make extensive use of them as well. Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novel That Awful Mess on Via Merulana is perhaps the crowning pinnacle of dialect literature even if the translator did not view it as a dialect novel. (Weaver, 2007, pg. xviii) According to Weaver, That Awful Mess uses various dialects throughout the novel including Neapolitan, Milanese, Molisano, Venetian as well as the local Roman dialect. (Weaver, 2007, pgs. xviii-xix) Calling the rendering of dialect into English a "tormenting" process, he chose to render the dialects into "straight-forward, spoken English" while asking the readers personally to imagine dialect in the voices of the characters (Weaver, 2007, pg. xxi), a process that, while generating problems of its own, may well be the best strategy to handle dialect in a novel. In terms of artistry, Weaver's success is a tremendous achievement.

But as translation scholar Maria Tymoczko once questioned, “How have we arrived at a position where translations are read and discussed in this way, as records of cultural contestations and ideological struggles, rather than as simple linguistic transpositions or literary creations?” (Tymoczko, 2006, pg. 443). While some countries, like Spain, have solved that problem in part by removing the dialectal stigma of languages like Catalan and Galician –in contrast to France where Breton, a Celtic language, is not recognized as distinct on the political level–, the act of writing in languages that in another time may have been considered dialects has not neutralized its political impact. Tymoczko’s ideological struggle electrifies Tomas Mac Siomoin’s Irish Gaelic novel The Cartographer’s Apprentice which, set in Catalonia, is not without political connotations in the late Mac Siomoin’s adopted region. Whether a translator’s goal is political or not depends on the translator and their agenda, if the translator possesses any such agenda in the first place. But should they choose to translate a dialect-laden novel into their target language or utilize a technique like opacité, they will be doing the source culture a tremendous favor by making its presence felt beyond its regional origins.

Bibliographical References

Chamoiseau, P. (1998). Texaco. Vintage.

Gadda, C.E. (2007). That awful mess on the via Merulana. New York, New York Review Of Books.

Réjouis, R.M. Chamoiseau, P. (1999). A reader in the room: Rose-Myriam Réjouis meets Patrick Chamoiseau. Callaloo, 22(2), 346–350.

Marley, B. [@BobMarley]. (2017, January 18). Corner Stone (1970) - Bob Marley & The Wailers. Youtube.

Siomoin, T.M. (2013). The cartographer’s apprentice: A 21st century fable. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Tymoczko, M. (2006). Translation: Ethics, Ideology, Action. Massachusetts Review, 47(3), 442–461.

Venuti, L. (2012). The Translation Studies Reader. Routledge.

Weaver, W. (2007) “Translator’s Foreword.” That Awful Mess on the via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda. New York Review Books, xv–xxi.

Visual Sources

Cover: [Metaphor over different ways of talking. Illustration]. (n.d.). The Week.

Figure 1: [Poet and translator Ezra Pound. Photography]. (n.d.). Interno Poesia. Figure 2: [Portrait of Guido Cavalcanti. Painting, unknown technique]. (n.d.). Biografias y Vidas. Figure 3: [Translation scholar Lawrence Venuti. Photograph]. (2022). Dublin City Council. Figure 4: Cella, F. (2016) L’auteur Patrick Chamoiseau. [Photograph]. 24Heures Figure 5: [Portrait of author Carlo Emilio Gadda. Photograph.] (n.d.). I Nuovo Vespri.

Author Photo

Felix Purat

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