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14 - JAkobsón and translation - part 2

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  When dealing with interlingual translation - the most recognizable, superficial, apparent activity of a professional translator - we face the problem of the inexistent equivalence. Since seldom, if ever, in two languages we find two words covering the same semantic field 1, it is more common trying to translate not single code units, but complete messages.

The translator recodes and transmits a message received from another source 2.

JAkobsón's example refers to the Russian sentence "prinesi syru i tvorogu" 3 that, in a literal translation, would sound as: "bring cheese and cottage cheese".
  The reiteration of the word "cheese" makes even superficially clear that the concept of "cottage cheese" is comprised within the wider semantic category "cheese": that's the reason why the sentence sounds absurd, redundant. Cottage cheese is one of the many varieties of cheese, while tvoróg is not one of the many varieties of syr. The communication problem derives from the fact that the Russian word "syr" is connected to fermented cheese only.
  In a technical text, having a purely denotative nature, it is possible to deal with such difference in semantic fields acknowledging that and translating, if necessary, "syr" as "fermented cheese" instead of simply "cheese". On the contrary, in a more connotative text it is more difficult to translate expressions like this one, in which the obstacle consists in the cultural - rather than linguistic - difference. Not always, in such cases, explicitation (in this case adding the word "fermented") will do as a pragmatic or functional equivalent 4.
  While in the past, in order to deal with translation problems, we often had to turn to linguistics, in a sense JAkobsón reverses the approach.

No linguistic specimen may be interpreted by the science of language without a translation of its signs into other signs of the same system or into signs of another systems 5.

This means that linguistic research has to turn to translation - intralingual, interlingual, or intersemiotic translation. There is no possibility to study language without dealing with its interpretation, i.e. with its possible "translations". We can therefore state that linguistics is centered on semiotics and on translation intended in a broad sense. In this way, JAkobsón proposes a conceptual revolution comparable to the shift from the Ptolemaic view to the Copernican conception. Translation studies 6, seen this way, are no longer a marginal subfield of linguistics; they become the Sun around which language science orbits.
  Unlike artificial languages, in which it is possible to draw neat borders between the meanings of different utterances, in JAkobsón's opinion the main question in linguistics is equivalence in difference. We are not going to deny that verbal communication is at least in part possible but, in the meantime, we have to acknowledge that verbal communication normally produces a loss, and there are no two persons totally sharing the link between sign, sense, and mental image (interpretant, in Peirce's vocabulary).
  Consequently, linguistic work is based on the notion of translatability, on the possibility to transmit verbal communication from one individual to another, and from one person's mind to the utterance that person processes in order to communicate the message to the outer world. Such work is based on phenomena described in the previous units.
  Since between mental imagery and its verbal expression there is a reciprocal influence, there is still a theoretical difference caused by a different formulation of apparently identical facts.

Facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them 7

These are words of the famous linguist Whorf, quoted in JAkobsón's essay. If we adhere rigidly to this assumption, we must admit that any kind of translation is impossible. In this case, linguistic expression is not conceived as a function of mental contents; it is viewed as a mold shaping mental contents. Such statements, emphasizing expressive, perceptive, and cognitive peculiarities of every individual, cannot help discovering shared knowledge, which would be useful dealing with translation, with bilateral understanding.
  Fortunately, linguistic and metalinguistic abilities are always copresent, which is very useful for understanding each other.

An ability to speak a given language implies an ability to talk about this language. Such a metalinguistic operation permits revision and redefinition of the vocabulary used 8.

Any speaker, for this reason, is able to make statements about what he is trying to express and, if necessary, to adjust vocabulary - his own or the other speakers' one - in order to make communication possible.

Bibliographical references

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

TOROP P. La traduzione totale [Total Translation]. Ed. B. Osimo. Modena, Guaraldi Logos, 2000. ISBN 88-8049-195-4. Original edition Total´nyj perevod. Tartu, Tartu University Press, 1995. ISBN 9985-56-122-8.

WHORF B. L. Language, Thought, and Reality. Selected Writings, edited by John B. Carroll. Preface by Stuart Chase, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956.

1 In the previous units, we showed that this is impossible even within one language, and that often one word has not entirely the same meaning for two speakers.
2 JAkobsón 1987, p. 430.
3 "Bring cheese and cottage cheese".
4 For a more detailed study on the different conceptions of "equivalence", see the second part of this course.
5 JAkobsón 1987, p. 430.
6 In this instance, we use "translation" in a very broad sense, the same meant by Peeter Torop with "total translation" (Torop 2000). In the next units, we will go back on Torop's views about translation.
7 Worf 1956, p. 235.
8 JAkobsón 1987, p. 431.