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Turning the Screw (on the Translator This Time).

In 1973, Dr. J. Purdon Martin, then (retired) Consultant Physician with the National Hospital in London, published a study in the British Medical Journal about Henry James's famous 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. It added to the enormous amount of literature critics produced to comment and decipher the (still unsolved) mystery of the Jamesian text, but it is little known of since comments on literary texts are expected to show up in journals other than medical.

The source of this ongoing mystery comes from the clash between two irreconcilable attitudes towards the plot. A governess entrusted with the care of two children, Flora and Miles, sees two servants who used to work there before her. Upon checking with the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, she finds out that both were dead. So, there is basically only one way to go about this: either the governess is insane or the author wrote a ghost story. Both paths have been trodden upon, one part of the critique favouring all sorts of conditions underlying mental instability (hysteria, neurosis, and the like), while the other pointed out writing techniques specific to the fantastic genre.

What Purdon Martin does differently is establishing a firm professional diagnosis from a neurological point of view: the governess suffers from right temporal lobe epilepsy. That this is so he has no doubt:

/.../ apart from a few sentences that are required to further the plot practically every word is of medical significance (Martin, 1973: 717).

I am not concerned with the accuracy of this diagnosis; nor is it relevant if James was in truth familiar with John Hughlings Jackson's depiction of what was then called "Jacksonian epilepsy", as Purdon Martin hypothesizes. My interest is linguistic in nature: if reading the novella in English allows for such unexpected, but unequivocal interpretations from native professionals, could translations of it permit the same, as they should, in different cultures?

The answer is an unsure maybe for Romanian, at least for the only available version, which was provided by our renowned translator Antoaneta Ralian. And this is due to certain limits inherent in any process of translating from one language to another, but all the more so when the source language contains linguistic items that seem to weigh more than others and are lost in the target language.

Martin Purdon suspects Henry James of a play on the word turn. Judging by the frequency with which this noun/verb appears throughout the 149 pages of the novella, taking into account its appearance in the very title, and knowing that epileptic attacks were often termed thus, there is a strong possibility for Purdon to be right. A statistical inquiry from this point of view might be useful. Just a short note: I did not take into account any derivatives (like to return, for example).

The counting of verbal instances gives the following results:

7 times meaning to become (Rom. a deveni): "My imagination had /.../ turned real" (p. 27), "made me /.../ turn cold" (p. 34), "she turned white" (p. 35), "excitement that might /.../ have turned to something like madness" (p. 47), "I made her turn pale" (p. 54), "she had turned pale" (p. 103), "she had turned common and almost ugly" (p. 122).

15 times meaning to cause to move around (Rom. a se intoarce): "he turned round to the fire" (p. 4), "turned round to me" (p. 10), "I turned and saw" (p. 20), "we turned into the avenue" (p. 12), "I turned in to recover them" (p. 33), "/.../ turned to me" (p. 39), "Mrs. Grose /.../ turned round" (p. 40), "she turned round" (p. 54), "I definitely saw it turn" (p. 69), "I might have seen the low wretch /.../ turn" (p. 69), "she /.../ turned" (p. 77), "my companion did turn" (p. 83), "he turned round" (pp. 137, 139), "he turned to me" (p. 147).

7 times meaning to cause to go away (Rom. a se indeparta)--intransitive: "he turned away" (twice on p. 29, p. 146), "she turned away" (p. 39), "I turned away" (p. 74), "the summer had turned" (p. 87); and once transitive (Rom. a indeparta: "my insistence turned him from me" (p. 141).

1 time meaning to transform (Rom. a se transforma): "it turned to something else" (p. 47).

9 times meaning to meditate (on) (Rom. a medita): "I turned it/this over" (pp. 22, 30, 54, 147), "the truth I had now to turn over" (p. 31), "in turning it over" (p. 93), "he turned it over" (p. 107), "she turned things over" (p. 83), "he turned it over" (p. 131).

2 times meaning to change direction (Rom. a coti): "I /.../ turned a corner" (p. 35), "She turned right" (p. 52).

8 times meaning to cause something to go in a specific direction (Rom. a-si intoarce privirea/ochii/capul/spatele): "turning his eyes" (p. 4), "thus turning her back on me" (p. 23), "turned her back to the water" (p. 50), "she turned her eyes" (p. 72), "the boy turned it on me" (p. 88), "I could /.../ turn my back" (p. 97), "to turn my back on him" (p. 108), "turn at me an expression" (p. 120).

3 times in various verbal phrases: "we were /.../ turning suddenly out of alleys" (p. 85), "the sense of such differences /.../ turns infallibly to the vindictive" (p. 32) both meaning to go, "He turned off a little" (p. 108) meaning to revolve.

The nominal instances counting reveals the following:

3 times meaning bending/curve (Rom. cotitura): "At the turn of a path" (p. 26), "The icy slope, the turn mistaken at night" (p. 40), "The great turn of the staircase" (p. 68).

1 time meaning change in mood (Rom. toana): "/.../ with one of the quick turns of simple folks, she suddenly flamed up" (p. 19). 1 time meaning sudden change of direction (Rom. intorsatura): "with the turn my matters had now taken" (p. 86).

1 time meaning flip/reversal (Rom. intoarcere): "At the turn of a page" (p. 67).

1 time meaning round (Rom. tura): "I could take a turn into the grounds" (p. 26).

2 times in adjectival usage: "Turned out for Sunday by his uncle's tailor" (p. 91) meaning attired (Rom. gatit) "A person 'turned out' showed" (p. 146) meaning expelled (Rom. dat afara).

1 time in adverbial usage: "in turn" (p. 119) meaning one at a time (Rom. pe rand).

4 times in different verbal phrases and set expressions: "I took noiseless turns in the passage" (p. 72) meaning to go round (Rom. a se invarti), "[he] won't /.../ turn on me" (p. 127) meaning to go against someone (Rom. a se intoarce impotriva cuiva), "[it was enough] To turn you out for" (p. 146) meaning to throw someone out (Rom. a da afara), "It was a tighter place still than I had yet turned round in" (p. 133) meaning to be in a difficult position (Rom. a fi intr-un impas).

In total, there are 66 instances so far. Although this figure is quite high, it can be accounted for if we consider the fact that turn, as well as get and other few, number among the most widely used English words, statistically speaking. What they mean and how they are translated into Romanian is not an issue, either. Nevertheless, it becomes an issue in one particular instance that adds to the above 66: "What a dreadful turn, to be sure, Miss" (p. 121), Mrs. Grose says to the governess after one episode in which the latter sees the ghosts following them in the park. This was translated as Ce intorsatura urata (equivalent to What a nasty turn of events), while Purdon Martin says that here Henry James uses the word turn with its medical meaning of (epileptic) attack, fit, since the description of the episode could fit an attack of the aforementioned kind.

That James intended a pun on turn is inferred by Martin judging by its appearance in the title of the novella, something that certainly gives it weight. The phrase turn of the screw actually appears two more times beside the title, which raises its number of usages to 70. The title itself is to be found in a dialogue right in the beginning of the novella: after someone tells a ghost story involving a child, on a Christmas Eve, around a fire, Douglas (one of the narrators) says: "If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?" The reply comes: "We say /.../ that they give two turns!" (pp. 3-4). There is one more occurrence, however: "I could only get on at all by /.../ treating my monstrous ordeal as a push in a direction unusual /.../ but demanding /.../ for a fair front, only another turn of the screw of the ordinary human virtue" (p. 135), and this gives us a total number of 71 occurrences.

The meaning can be literal and metaphorical. One can use a screwdriver to turn a screw loose or tight into its place; on the other hand, the metaphorical usage implies pressure put on someone, a direction of thought certainly meant by James, but never stated plainly since it was his strong belief as a writer that truth is never complete about anything due to our (human) limited observational powers and understanding.

But again, this is not the issue here. How is a translator (into any other language, not just Romanian) to find a perfect equivalent to a word with semantic plethora and such rich collocational occurrences as to enable the same ambiguity in the target language? This one here is a genuine stumbling rock.

The title is translated as o coarda prea intinsa (Engl. a string subjected to undue strain), where the Romanian set expression a intinde coarda means to push one's luck/to take things too far. The translation is a good one since there is a suggestion of edginess, of things apt to go awry, in both versions. Only there are not too many contextual possibilities to that, in Romanian. The dialogues then translated as "Daca prezenta unui copil intinde coarda atentiei, ce veti spune atunci de prezenta a doi copii...? Ca va determina, desigur, intinderea a doua coarde!" (p. 4). And finally, the last fragment is translated as "Reuseam sa rezist /.../ privind incercarea monstruoasa careia ii eram supusa doar ca pe-o forta ce ma proiecta intr-o directie neobisnuita /.../ dar care nu cerea, pentru a te putea orienta cu succes, decit o rasucire a surubului menit sa intinda coarda obisnuitului curaj omenesc" (p. 155).

Both Romanian instances are awkward attempts to keep the wordplay. They are awkward since there is no such thing as the string of attention or the string of human courage (in either language!). But they reveal the translator's awareness of the importance of this wordplay and her efforts to find a matching unit. If a faultfinding reader could murmur in discontent and maintain that a better translation could be provided (this remaining, in the meantime, to be proven in the absence of another), not the same can be said if fit or (epileptic) attack was meant by that ambiguous usage in What a dreadful turn.

I will not even try to venture upon a different translation. I believe sometimes an author himself can be surprised at how many different interpretations his text can take. But this happens only to great literature. And yes, it is the duty of the translator to ensure that that literature remains great in another culture as well. It is just that, sometimes, the limits of translation are precisely the limits of language itself.


The author declare that there is no conflict of interest regarding this paper.


[1.] James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw, a pdf e-book created by Jose Menendez at http://onlinebooks. library.

[2.] James, Henry. O coarda prea intinsa. Bucuresti: Edinter, 1991.

[3.] Martin, J. Purdon. Neurology in Fiction: The Turn of the Screw. In British Medical Journal no 4, 22 December 1973, pp. 717-721.

Laura Carmen CUTITARU--Associate Professor, Ph. D., Faculty of Letters, "Alexandru loan Cuza" University of Iasi, Romania


Laura Carmen CUTITARU

Associate Professor, Ph. D., Faculty of Letters, "Alexandru Ioan Cuza" University of Iasi, Romania,


Submission: March, 29rd, 2017

Acceptance: May, 02nd, 2017
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Title Annotation:Multidisciplinary contributions
Author:Cutitaru, Laura Carmen
Publication:Bulletin of Integrative Psychiatry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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