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26 - Translatability - part 2

In the previous unit, we analyzed the thought of Sapir, Whorf, and Quine from the angle of their potential for translation studies. There is, though, another important researcher who has a rather original point of view on the linguistic expression/awareness relation: Noam Chomsky [his Russian name should be pronounced "hómski" rather than "chomski"] 1.

  In Chomsky's view, every phrase, before being formulated, is conceived as a deep structure in our mind. On the deep psychological level, in Chomsky's opinion, a phrase in any of the different natural languages has the same structure at its origins: the differences in each linguistic construction arise only when the phrase comes to the surface level, when, from a psychic phenomenon, it becomes a linguistic utterance.

  The Homskian theory, therefore, postulates the existence of elementary, universal conceptual constructions, common to all mankind. Interlingual translation (and intralingual translation, too) is always possible, according to Chomsky, because logical patterns underlying the natural languages are uniform constants. If a speaker actualizes a deep structure in some way, it can also be expressed in another language 2.

  We are not interested in discussing here the success of this theory in linguistics. We will limit ourselves to observing its consequences for translation studies.

  The Homskian view implicates the separation of the information level from the style level. Information is what originates from "deep structures", while the way in which that information is conveyed is of secondary importance and belongs to the domain of formal signs 3.

  Returning to the distinction Hjelmslev makes between expression and content planes, according to Chomsky, it is always possible to translate the content plane, while the expression plane becomes mere appearance. Every type of literary translation - of connotative text - is left out in this point of view. Consequently, this view excludes any kind of translation of texts that, although not literary in nature, do have some connotative characteristics. It is obvious that, in a connotative text, the dominant is linked mostly to what, in Homskian terms, is the surface structure, rather than the deep structure. According to Chomsky, the possibility to translate is unlimited as far as "closed" texts are concerned - texts that can be interpreted in a single way, without connotations, i.e. a minimal part of real texts.

  Whorf, Quine, and Chomsky did research in linguistics, but the problem of translatability cannot be faced exhaustively using a purely linguistic approach: a text is a cultural phenomenon that, within its culture, produces and undergoes many influences. In this sense, both the prototext and the metatext are equally important texts. Every translation is to be considered a cultural translation, before it is a linguistic one:

language, text, and text function are different reflections of a single culture. For that reason, from the point of view of total translation, it is more convenient to speak of culture translatability. The total translatability concept is complementary, comprising many different parameters within its field 4.

Advancing from the old quandary of the linguistic untranslatability of connotative texts, we can consider the concept of translatability in terms of the possibility for a text to function as a cultural element within its culture. On one hand we need to decide whether and how the culture represented in a text is translatable; on the other hand we must know what metatextual and intertextual relations the text will have within the culture/s receiving it when it is translated.

  Another fundamental aspect of translatability is the need for the translator to sometimes explicate the meaning of the text. The prototext author can afford ambiguities, polysemic words, or expressions, which are unavailable to the translator. The very fact of reading the prototext and trying to write it in the language and for the culture that will receive it involves a process of rational interpretation and, when rewriting, the explication of that rational act.

  Whenever a translator does not understand a passage, an allusion, a reference of the prototext author, that misunderstanding is often revealed and rationalized in the translation. Aspects, that in the prototext are implicit, become explicit in the metatext, and those that are not made explicit form part of the translation loss, owing either to a rational choice of the translator or simply to misunderstanding. The translation act not only transmits the prototext content, it also lays bare its structure 5.

The demonstrative nature of translation as text representation must not be regarded as only subsidiary. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive features of this subcategory of representatives since it distinguishes translation as a speech act from, for example, interpretation in the form of critical comment, or essay, and similar meta-literary achievements 6.

As we can see translation, in Broeck's opinion, owing to its rationalizing nature, is a form of interpretation like the critical essay or review. There is no such thing as a neutral translation. If every translation is a rational interpretation process, it is necessary to make the translator's critical approach known to the reader as well.

   Rationalization in translation undoubtedly plays an important role and has important consequences. In the next unit we will see how it is possible to exploit the process of the laying bare of a text, instead of denying the idea as an uncomfortable, self-evident phenomenon, in order to improve translatability, through a rational management of the translation loss in the metatext.

Bibliographical references

BROECK R. VAN DEN Literary Conventions and Translated Literature, in Convention and Innovation in Literature a cura di T. D'haen, R. Grübel, H. Lethen, Philadelphia, Benjamins, 1989, p. 57-75.

CHOMSKY N. Questions of Form and Interpretation, Lisse, Peter de Ridder, 1975.

CHOMSKY N. Reflections on Language, New York, Pantheon Books, 1976.

NIDA E. Semantic Components, in Babel, 8, 4.

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

1 Chomsky 1976, p. 182.
2 Chomsky 1975, p. 37.
3 Nida 1962.
4 Torop 2000, p. 112.
5 Torop 2000, p. 113 f.
6 Broeck 1989, p. 59.