Friday, December 27, 2019

Gilleland's howler

Over at Michael Gilleland's excellent Laudator Temporis Acti, there's a post about a "howler" of a translation. Some translator, it seems, rendered the Italian promiscuità directly and literally as "promiscuity" in English, which would lead an anglophone reader to think there was some raunchy, indiscriminate sex happening. The writer of the passage that Gilleland quotes contends that the translation should have been "propinquity," i.e., physical closeness, so as to make clear that the original author was referring to people who were jam-packed together, not to an orgy.

All this made me think of the French prof at Georgetown who warned us English-speakers that la promiscuité, in French, could conceivably refer to sexual promiscuity, but in both its older and more modern usages, it refers more to a non-sexual situation in which people are simply jumbled together. Look the word up in Lexilogos, and you get the following definitions:

A. − Vieilli ou littér. Mélange ou entassement confus, assemblage disparate de choses abstraites ou concrètes.
En partic. Rapprochement sexuel de personnes contraire à un code moral ou une loi.

B. − Assemblage, voisinage de personnes de moeurs, de milieux, de races ou de sexes différents dont le contact paraît choquant ou contraire à la bienséance.
− ANTHROPOL. Promiscuité (sexuelle). Relations sexuelles soumises, chez les peuples primitifs, à des règles impératives.

C. − Mod. Proximité, entassement de personnes résultant d'une situation particulière (généralement d'une exiguïté de lieu), ressentie comme désagréable ou néfaste moralement ou physiquement.
Note that definition C, above, is the modern one, and all it entails is an unpleasant packing-together of people in a cramped space. Promiscuité has a possible sexual connotation in its older, more literary sense (def. A), and also in a more anthropological sense (def. B).

What's even more interesting is what you see when you visit and read its definition of "promiscuous":
1. characterized by or involving indiscriminate mingling or association, especially having sexual relations with a number of partners on a casual basis.
2. consisting of parts, elements, or individuals of different kinds brought together without order.
3. indiscriminate; without discrimination.
4. casual; irregular; haphazard.
So it seems the semantic field of "promiscuous/promiscuity" really isn't so far off from the Italian promiscuità or the French promiscuité. You will have noted, of course, that the sexual aspect of the word is front and center in definition 1, probably because most English speakers hear "promiscuous" and immediately think of wanton sexual activity. In the end, I can see why the translator might have chosen to translate the Italian expression literally: the semantic field of the English equivalent makes such a translation plausible. The translator's error, though, was in being out of touch with the public and not realizing that most anglophones would probably get a giggle out of such a rendering.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

What's up with that? I don't recall ever losing a toenail. Yours seem to fall like leaves in Autumn. Residual impact from the walk?