Experiences in translation: What is translating all about?
A translator must take into account rules that are not strictly linguistic but, broadly speaking, cultural.
The words coffee, café, and caffé can be considered as reasonable synonyms when they refer to a certain plant.
Nevertheless, the expressions ‘donnez-moi un café,’ ‘give me a coffee’ and ‘mia dia un caffé’ (certainly linguistically equivalent to one another, as well as being good examples of different sentences conveying the same proposition, and satisfactory instances of literal translation) are not culturally equivalent. Uttered in different countries, they produce different effects and they are used to refer to different habits.
They produce different stories. Consider these two sentences, one from an Italian novel, the other from an American one: ‘Ordinai un caffé, lo buttai giù in un secondo e uscii dal bar’ (literally, ‘I ordered a coffee, swilled it down in a second and went out of the bar’): and ‘He spent half an hour with the cup in his hands, sipping his coffee and thinking of Mary.’ The first sentence can only refer to an Italian coffee and to an Italian bar, since an American coffee cannot be swallowed in a second both because of its quantity and of its temperature.
The second sentence cannot refer to an Italian subject (at least to an average one drinking an average espresso) because it presupposes a large cup containing what seems like gallons of coffee.
In any event, this is a case in which the translator can hope that even a literal translation will be enough to make a foreign reader understand what is going on.
From “Experiences in Translation” by Umberto Eco – University of Toronto Press Incorporated 2001