Well I’ve taken a wander with Italian proverb: ‘donna danno, sposa spesa, moglie maglio’ and its translation and an old and much-loved friend of mine, Erwin Schrödinger, finds me pondering it and suggests that in the very act of translation, I am killing his cat.
So, I say, you are suggesting to me that the interpretation of the proverb that I arrive at is forced by my very act of translation? Exactly, says Erwin. An English translation does not have the same duality. The uncertainty is a function of its native language.
Consider just that very first part; ‘donna danno’. This can be translated as ‘women damage’ but equally ‘women give’. ‘Danno’ is untranslatable here because its meaning is ambiguous. Add to this the certainty that this proverb was an oral tradition for a long time before it was ever written down, the ambiguity is even stronger. As it were.
All the interpretations are possible, says Erwin, but simply by writing it down, even in its native tongue, we strip away many of the possibilities. In the spoken word, the range of nuance and intonation available afford a wide range of interpretations. So the meaning of this proverb is determined by the context in which it is deployed.
Ah, I say, so when I consider its meaning in isolation, any and all interpretations are possible and probable – it has superinterpretation – but by deploying the proverb in a context, I then impose one particular interpretation.
That’s one way of looking at it, says Erwin. I’m away this weekend, could you feed my cat? Certainly, I say, are you going somewhere nice?
In all probability, he replies.