Phonic and Graphic Issues in Italian Translation I

Amongst all the textual variables known – prosodic, grammatical, intertextual, phonic, graphic – the last two are the most dispensable when it comes to Italian translation. A translator will most readily sacrifice the phonic and the graphic properties of the source text to cultivate readability and the communicability in the target text. At the phonic level, a text is composed of a combination of phonemes or graphemes. A phoneme is the smallest possible single sound, and a grapheme is a unit of the writing system, namely, the letters of the alphabet.

As such, an Italian translator does not pay much attention to the sounds made by the written words or the way the words are pronounced. His purpose, as is the purpose of any reader, is to identify the message of the text. However, there are certain rhetorical devices that function with the explicit purpose of drawing the reader’s attention to the sounds being produced, such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme and onomatopoeia. In this section, we will discuss the significance of the first two sound devices, and the challenges they pose for Italian translation.

Alliteration and assonance are sound devices which rely on repetition to produce their effect. Alliteration occurs when the same consonant sound is repeated at the beginning of two or more consecutive words, as in, “the furrow followed free.” Assonance occurs when the same vowel sound is repeated within two or more consecutive words, as in “strips of tinfoil winking like people.” The burden of repetition does not lie on the spelling of the words, but on their articulation: the “f” in the first example and the “i” in the second.

Sound Devices in Italian Translation

Sound devices, when they occur in scientific and informative texts, either occur accidentally or serve an ornamental purpose. On the other hand, in literary texts like poetry, the sound devices are of paramount importance because they are used to articulate and reinforce the theme. Italian translation of scientific and informative texts can omit sound devices, but Italian translation of literature will do that only at the cost of compromising the content and style of the source text. Such Italian translation will be considered incomplete.

A more complicated issue confronts the Italian translator in the form of sound symbolism. Sound symbolism assumes a direct link between sound and meaning; it suggests that the pronunciation of a word also conveys its meaning. There are two kinds of sound symbolism: one occurs when the sound of the word present in front of the reader reminds him of other words which are not present before him, the other occurs when one sound is repeated across several words, and in the process, makes them reflect each other’s meanings. Sound symbols, therefore, do not have fixed meanings; their meanings change with the context, and derive from the words that are accompanying them in a particular context. Once again, the Italian translator will have to determine the purpose of the text and the purpose of the sound symbols in order to decide whether he should ignore or translate them. In Italian translation source text phonic loss can be minimized by replacing source text phonics with target language phonics that are sound differently but create a similar effect.


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