Translating Italian into music

Translations are made of visual signs on the page or screen. But they are also made of patterns of sound, with vowels clipped or sonorous and consonants plosive or sibilant, sewn into a linear tapestry of timbres and stresses that we can feel through our sense of rhythm. And we can use to great effect. If we keep our ears open, that is.

The ebb and flow of a text, its evocative interlacing of sounds and echoes, can add much to the reading experience. It can make a text more enjoyable and more engaging. And the more engaged the reader, the closer their attention, and the more effectively the message can be conveyed and made memorable, so it hits home and lives on in the mind afterwards. Which is exactly what translation buyers want.

There are several dimensions to this musicality of language, this euphony, that can be harnessed to enhance the texts we create.

Rhythm is a fundamental ingredient in the mix. A text with an interminable waddle of bloated sentences that plod on, one after another after another, is liable to lead to a heaviness of the eyelids. And too many short sentences are problematic too. There is not enough variety. The text becomes choppy and boring. It’s a rather infantile way of writing. It grates on the ear – like this.

There are some marvellous examples of rhythmical writing out there, from Hemingway to the HSBC UK advert that begins “Where would we be without you? The butchers, the bakers, the digital future-makers. This proud nation of shopkeepers. From BLTs to MOTs, you’re the companies that keep us all going…”. You can feel the rhythm. It’s not a childish sing-song; it’s not like the sledgehammer of rap; it carries you along and gets you into the spirit.

One technique here is the rule of three. Veni, vidi, vici. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Soft, strong and very long. Triplets in writing can have a powerful rhythmic effect, especially when the longest element comes last – “Life, the pursuit of Happiness, and Liberty” wouldn’t trip off the tongue quite as memorably as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (from the US Declaration of Independence).

But rhythm isn’t just about the flow within a paragraph; it also works within each sentence. “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” wrote The Bard, in perfect iambic pentameter. By which I mean a line comprising five iambs, an iamb being a rhythmical unit made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Like “wahey” or “today” or “curtail”. But not “curtain”, which contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: that’s a trochee. And then there are dactyls (in a DUM-di-di pattern, as in “wonderful”), anapaests (di-di-DUM, “on the sea”) and the double whammy of a spondee (DUM-DUM, “hard cheese”).

When you become aware of individual syllable stresses and how they fit together, you’re much better placed to write more rhythmical, appealing sentences. Which sounds better: “Design, technology and racy performance, resulting in the highest standard of quality cruising on the seas” or “Design, technology and racy performance for a fabulous cruising experience”? That “resulting in the” makes you stutter when you read it out loud – or even in your head.

Likewise, the lumpen “Every detail on Ocean Mist is a precise and direct expression of the personality of her owner and is all exclusively made” works rather better when distilled down to the crisper “On Ocean Mist, every exclusive detail is a pure expression of her owner’s personality”. Another technique is to end a sentence on a stress for added resonance: “I am Chief Inspector Barnaby, and this is Sergeant Troy.” – an emphatic monosyllable to end the announcement and reinforce the import.

From patterns of stress to patterns of sound: the echoes of assonance and alliteration offer canny writers another tool to make their texts sing. If used judiciously, of course. For if we’re not careful, the effect can be overdone, from “The dubbyng of my dingnité may noyot be done downe” in a mediaeval mystery play to the tabloid headline “Flapjack whack rap claptrap” (?) and on to the inexplicable F-fest of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Cockermouth and Workington: “No folk fled the flood, / no flags furled or spirits failed – / one brave soul felled.” (etc., ad nauseam). Those examples are deliberately full-on, but overblown assonance can also creep up on you unawares, as in “The yAcht Offers a cOncept Of On-board Opulence…”, with its hammer sequence of “o” sounds that would be more at home in a rap song.

Instead, we can use a subtle sprinkling of prosody to create a pleasant effect. The copy for this Italian perfume maker is a-waft with auditory notes: “Aquaflor invites you to experience a collection of fragrances lovingly crafted by master perfumer Sileno Cheloni from rare and precious ingredients sourced from every corner of the world.” For besides the lattice of fragrant f’s (Aquaflor, fragrances, crafted, perfumer) and crisp c’s (Aquaflor, collection, crafted, corner), the perfumer’s very name, “Sileno Cheloni” is itself a symphony of syllables that adds a certain je ne sais quoi of its own. These nuanced verbal devices enhance the image of a sophisticated product.

Never mind The Sun, alliteration is also at home in the infinitely more refined hands of The Economist’s headline writers: “Chengdu then don’t” proclaims a piece about the cancellation of an event in China; “Going against the grain” winks a column about disruptive technology in the whisky industry. The possibilities are endless.

And it’s not just about rhythm and flow or patterns of assonance. Individual sounds can make their own unsung contribution to the value of a piece of writing. Call it phonaesthetics, call it euphony, certain words trip off the tongue in delightful style: compare “mellifluous”, “sublime” and “gossamer” with “slug-like”, “jugjub” and “honking”, for instance. Whether or not you go as far as The Upanishads (“The mute consonants represent fire; sibilants, air; vowels, the sun.”), there’s clearly something going on here.

The “bouba-kiki” experiment gives us a clue: people are shown two shapes – one spiky and angular, one rounded and soft – and told that one is called “bouba” and the other “kiki”. They have to say which. People nearly always pair “kiki” with spiky and “bouba” with curvy. And this works across different countries, languages and cultures, suggesting that there may be something universal at work.

Either way, owl-eared writers have yet another tool to hone their work. We can use ‘h’ sounds to help create a mood of high-flown harmony, hope, holiness or heavenly hosts. Lazy l’s evoke languid, leisurely, lavish, idyllic luxury. And the reedy i’s and t’s in “tinpot leader” reinforce the impression of a meagre, insubstantial figure. Sounds come into their own in the language of product or company names. “Sprite” suggests a sense of crisp freshness. Animal health brand “Zoetis” went through various iterations, including “Zoetic”, which they softened for a slightly warmer feel by changing the last letter. And if you’re talking about some fast, edgy new product for men, then maybe velvety language like “blend” and “melodious” isn’t really what you want.

To develop this level of refinement in your writing, you have to cultivate an awareness and then learn to apply it. Open your ears when you read, to absorb what other writers have done – from greats like Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare to the best contemporary journalists, copywriters and poets. It’s about giving yourself the time and headspace to experience the soundscape that a well-written text can offer. And then making a conscious, sustained effort to emulate that and build on it yourself. Until you make what you have learned your own, by reflecting and practising, you’ve not made the most of your investment in yourself.

There are a couple of good exercises to try. Take a paragraph of text you like the sound of and re-write it. Change the words, change the subject, make it about whatever you want – but keep the rhythm. Keep the same pattern of sentence lengths. Heck, if you’re feeling adventurous, keep the same pattern of syllables and stresses in each sentence, too. It’ll show you something about language.

The other exercise, which is just as challenging but maybe even more fun, is to take a song you like and write different lyrics to it. But they have to fit the rhythm. None of that “It’s no sac-er-i-fice” (tsk tsk, Elton). Banging tune but excruciating, outdated lyrics? (“Living, loving, she’s just a woman” – groan – I’m looking at you, Led Zep.) Why not bring them up to date or give them an ironic twist? It’s all in a good cause. Or if that doesn’t float your boat, try the discipline of haiku writing. For as John Cooper Clarke reminds us, “To convey one’s mood / In seventeen syllables / Is very diffic.

But with a little effort, writers and translators can help to make the world a little more musical. Echoing with more beautiful, more memorable, more effective texts. And what better note to end on than that.

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