Tim Parks, a British novelist living in Italy since 1981, writes about an English translation of an Italian novel:

Imagine I am reading a novel for review, something translated from Italian, a language I know well…

…“At this point,” I read, “it was clear that when she’d confessed she’d hardly even considered it.” …I download the original to my Kindle and find:

A questo punto risultava chiaro che lei a confessare non ci pensava neanche.

How should we parse this sentence? The main clause is obviously “a questo punto risultava chiaro,” that is “at this point I was clear” – we all agree on this, Parks, the translator and I. The subordinate clause seems a little unusual. What’s the infinitive doing ahead of the predicate verb? I’d suggest moving “a confessare” to the end of the clause. We get “lei non ci pensava neanche a confessare.”

This is pretty close to the English expression, usually in the negative, “to not think/be thinking of/about (doing) something.” Of Julia Roberts, we read: “ma per il momento lei non ci pensa neanche a rivolgersi a un chirurgo plastico” – “but for the moment, she’s not even thinking of giving a call to a plastic surgeon.” It could be a calque from the English – I’m not sure. More examples can be found at Reverso Context (1, 2). “Non ci pensare neanche a festeggiare, siamo qui per lavoro.” – “Don’t even think of/about partying – we’re here for work.”

Perhaps the translator got confused by the inverted word order. In Parks’s second example, an imperfect subjunctive was translated as if were a past (possibly perfect) indicative. It must be an unusual error because the subjunctive -asse ending jumps out at the reader, unlike its English counterpart. According to Parks,

In trouble with the flexibility of “ansia” (not always a simple cognate of anxiety), the translator has missed the effect of the subjunctive “diventasse”…

This looks quite likely: in this context, “ansia” – “anxiety” – probably means “an eager but often uneasy desire,” so it’s a essentially a wish and demands a subjunctive.

There’s probably no such thing as an error-free translation but there’s a critical mass of blunders that will ruin the knowledgeable reader’s trust in the translator. Ideally, a bilingual editor should run a check through both texts, or at least identify suspicious passages in the translation and correct them where necessary. It’s probably too expensive to be feasible.

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