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13 - JAkobsón and translation - part 1

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  Among JAkobsón's works, an essay written in 1959 stands out for its importance in the framework of general, fundamental reflections on translation problems. On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, seven pages in all, includes what more than 40 years later is still a precious source of reflections for researchers of the nature of the translation process.

  Before analyzing the question in a more detailed way, a warning is appropriate: the reader should not be misled by the title of JAkobsón's essay, particularly by the adjective "linguistic". JAkobsón has a broad conception of "linguistics", far beyond the traditional limits of this discipline.

  Our purpose here is to read passages of JAkobsón's essay together and comment on it, dwelling on some ideas that are of great help in thinking about translation problems. The essay is not devoted to translation as an action, but to the importance of translation in semiotic studies, to translation as a concept. Here comes one of the first and most important concepts:

No one can understand the word "cheese" unless he has a nonlinguistic acquaintance with cheese

   These are Bertrand Russell's words, quoted by JAkobsón. Russell, in fact, holds that words as such are not capable to convey meanings that do not have roots in a direct subjective experience of what is meant.

  This statement is controversial for a translator, because to accept it would mean to state that - for a subject unfamiliar to a given culture - it is impossible to figure out words referring to concepts or objects typical of the source culture and alien to his own.

  JAkobsón questions such a statement affirming that the solution could be an intralingual translation, i.e. in this case, to explain that "cheese" means «food made of pressed curds» 1.

  For a subject belonging to a culture where cheese does not exist it is, therefore, enough to know what "curds" are to get an idea about the possible meanings of "cheese". The signification process often works in this way. When we are told that the Jews fleeing from Egypt during their long journey through the desert ate "manna", we, readers of the Bible, even though we never could taste manna, can get an idea of what manna could be: a different idea for each of us, that however has a common share.

  From his argument, JAkobsón draws a very important conclusion:

The meaning [...] of any word or phrase whatsoever is definitely [...] a semiotic fact 2.

  It therefore does not make any sense to assign a meaning (signatum) to the object and not to the sign (signum): nobody has ever felt the smell - or the taste - of the meaning of "cheese" or "apple". A signatum may exist only if a signum exists too. Someone tasting Gorgonzola or Emmenthal cheese without verbal coding is not able to infer the meaning of the word "cheese" because, in order to explain the meaning of an unknown word, a series of linguistic signs is necessary. The meaning of a word - if we remain in the verbal context - is nothing but its translation into a series of other words: and in this passage we notice the importance of translation, intended in a broader sense, for communication in general, and for intercultural communication in particular.

  Without translation, it would be impossible to get someone to understand objects that are not part of his culture. In JAkobsón's opinion, there are three ways of interpreting a verbal sign:

  1. Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
  2. Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.
  3. Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems. 3
  In the aforementioned examples related to the word "cheese", there was an attempt to make an intralingual translation, i.e. to explain with a periphrasis, a circumlocution, without recurring to another language, the meaning of "cheese". The point, in other words, is to find words that are nearly synonyms. "Yet synonymy, as a rule, is not complete equivalence" 4, warns us JAkobsón. The translation into other words of the meaning of an utterance is always the result of an interpretation; therefore, it can - and does - vary according to the subjects who perform it. From this fact we can infer the variety of the possible translations in interlingual translation too.

All cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any existing language. Whenever there is a deficiency, terminology can be qualified and amplified by loanwords or loan translations, by neologisms or semantic shifts, and, finally, by circumlocutions 5.

  Of course, a universal, empirical, and repeatable method of determining when such deficiencies do occur, whether and how - among the ways pointed out by JAkobsón - cultural intermediaries (translators, for example) should play an active role in their decoding does not exist. In other words, it is impossible to refer to a single method to deal with the problem of loss in translation. For instance, the Northeast Siberian Chukchees refer to the "screw" as a "rotating nail", to the "steel" as a "hard iron", to the "tin" as a "thin iron" and to the "chalk" as a "writing soap" 6
  However, as every technical or literary translator knows very well, it is not always enough to say the right thing; very often it is essential to say it in the right way too. To this point, we will go back many times, in particular in the third part of this course.

Bibliographical references

JAkobsón R. Language in Literature
Ed. by Krystyna Pomorska e Stephen Rudy, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Belknap Press, 1987.

JAkobsón R. On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, in Language in Literature,
a c. di Krystyna Pomorska e Stephen Rudy, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 428-435. ISBN 0-674-51028-3.

1 JAkobsón 1987, p. 428. JAkobsón 1987, p. 429.
2 JAkobsón 1987, p. 428.
3 JAkobsón 1987, p. 429.
4 JAkobsón 1987, p. 429.
5 JAkobsón 1987, p. 431.
6 JAkobsón 1987, p. 431.