Logos Multilingual Portal

28 - Lotman and translatability - part 1

An important contribution to translation studies and to the definition of the concept of "translatability" from a semiotic point of view comes from JUrij Lotman, founder of the Tartu School of Semiotics. Let us examine its origins.

  We must return to the '40s, to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where the young JUrij Lotman enrolls in the University and - interrupted by his participation as a soldier in World War II - earns a human sciences degree. Many of his teachers were the same scholars who, in the two previous decades, had taken part in the Formalist and Structuralist movements. One of them was Vladìmir JA. Propp, famous the world over for his studies on folklore and fairy tales.

  In 1950, having earned his degree with honors, Lotman seeks employment, but, without fail, each time he is about to be hired, someone else is employed in his place at the last minute. The young researcher ignores that an anti-Semitic policy is taking place, and Lotman is an unwitting victim.

  Meanwhile a former college mate finds a job at the Tartu University, and she finds that there are other vacant positions too; Lotman moves immediately to Estonia. Here, local authorities are too busy in the struggle against the local populace resistance, hostile to Soviet regime, to find resources for the campaign against Jews, even if they had received precise orders from Moscow 1. Moreover, in Estonia there were not many Jews left, after the mass deportations during the Nazi occupation.

  So it seems that the fates have deemed Lotman to begin his university career in Tartu, the second most important town in Estonia - the northernmost of the Baltic States, officially proclaimed an independent Republic in 1991. The prestigious Tartu University was ounded in 1632. In the 1960s, Lotman is particularly interested in the methods of analyzing poetic texts and in the research on the ideological models of culture. In 1960, he gives his first course in structural poetics and, in 1962, publishes his Lectures on Structural Poetics 2.

  In 1962 in Moscow, the Cybernetics Council and the Slavic Studies Institute, where many structural linguistics trends originate, organized a symposium on the structural study of sign systems. Since these two disciplines (cybernetics and structural linguistics) are considered officially pseudo-scientific and are rejected by the official Soviet academic world, the symposium acquires a truly innovative and anti-conformist character. During the symposium lectures were read, among others, about

language semiotics, logic semiotics, automatic translation, art semiotics, mythology, language and description of non-verbal communication systems (i.e. road signs, card divination language, etc.), semiotics of the communication with deaf-mutes, ritual semiotics 3,

then eventfully published in the now famous "theses". After receiving a copy of the Moscow symposium theses, Lotman traveled to Moscow to meet with his Russian colleagues and proposes a partnership program geographically based in Tartu.

  As a consequence, the prestigious review Trudy po znakovym sistemam was founded in 1964 which exists and thrives to this day and is now printed with three additional titles: Sign Systems Studies, Töid märgisüsteemide alalt (in Estonian) and Semeiotikè. In 1964, the first conference of the newborn school is held in Tartu. Many people call this school simply "The Tartu school" because the annual review published there is still one of the most important references for world semiotics.

  Lotman died in 1993. The Semiotics professorship is now held by Peeter Torop (widely quoted in the previous units), one of the most famous researchers, among other fields, in the application of semiotics to translation studies.

  PIn Lotman's writings there is something very interesting for translation studies. To understand what Torop says about translatability, we do best to begin from the general Lotmanian view of culture:

[...] if, for the biological survival of an individual, the satisfaction of some natural needs is enough, the life of any group whatsoever is not possible without a culture [...] All man's needs can be divided into two groups. To the first group belong the needs that must be immediately satisfied and cannot (or can hardly) be accumulated. [...] The needs that can be satisfied by accumulated store form a different group. They are the objective basis for the acquisition, by the organism, of extra-genetic information 4.

In the nature/culture dialectics, Lotman attributes to man, among all the other living beings, the only possibility of belonging to both systems:

Man, in his struggle for life, is, therefore, inserted in two processes: in one he intervenes as a consumer of material values, of things, in the other he is, instead an accumulator of information. Both are necessary for existence. If for man, as a biological creature, the first is enough, social life implies both 5.

However, in Lotman's opinion, there are not only the culture space and the nature space in the semiotic world; there is a non-culture space as well, "that sphere functionally belonging to Culture, but not fulfilling its rules" . When Lotman says "Culture", he refers to the whole of the cultures constituting man's world and, within each of them, he isolates a "language set", so that every member of any given culture is "a sort of polyglot".

  As we will see, the Lotmanian view of culture is strictly related to translatability and translation studies.

[...] culture is a gathering of historically formed semiotic systems (languages) [...] The translation of the same texts into other semiotic systems, the assimilation of different texts, the moving of the boundaries between texts belonging to culture and those beyond its boundaries are the mechanisms through which it is possible to culturally incorporate reality. Translating a given section of reality into one of the languages of culture, transforming it into a text, i.e. into an information codified in a given way, introducing this information into collective memory: this is the everyday cultural activity sphere. Only what has been translated into a sign system can become part of memory. The intellectual history of humankind can be considered as a struggle for memory. Not by chance, the destruction of a culture manifests itself in the form of destruction of memory, annihilation of texts, oblivion of nexuses 7.

In later writings, particularly in the essay called On the semiosphere, his semiotic view is based more and more on the concept of translation.

[..] all semiotic space can be considered a single mechanism (if not organism). Then not this or that brick will appear as the foundation, but the 'great system' called "semiosphere". The semiosphere is the semiotic space outside of which the existence of semiosis is impossible 8.

In the next unit, we will see that the functioning of this huge and complex organism has a dense network of translations at its base.


Bibliographical references

EGOROV B. 'izn´ i tvorcestvo JU. M. Lotmana. Moskvà, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1999. ISBN 5-86793-070-X.

LOTMAN JU. Izbrannye stat´i v trëh tomah. vol. 1. Stat´i po semiotike i tipologii kul´tury. Tallinn, Aleksandra, 1992. ISBN 5-450-01551-8.

LOTMAN JU. Lekcii po struktural´noj poètike. In JU. M. Lotman i tartusko-moskovskaja semioticeskaja shkola. Moskvà, Gnozis, 1994, p. 10-263. ISBN 5-7333-0486-3. Edizione italiana: JU. Lotman, La smiosfera, Venezia, Marsilio, 1985. ISBN 88-317-4703-7.

LOTMAN JU. Stat´i po tipologii kul´tury. Tartu, 1970.

USPENSKIJ B. Tartuskaja semioticeskaja 'kola glazami eë ucastnikov, in JU. M. Lotman i tartusko-moskovskaja semioticeskaja shkola. Moskvà, Gnosis, 1994c, p. 265-351. ISBN 5-7333-0486-3.

1 Egorov 1999, p. 48-49.
2 Lotman 1994.
3 Uspenskij 1994, p. 270.
4 Lotman 1970, p. 26-27.
5 Lotman 1970, p. 28.
6 Lotman 1970, p. 30.
7 Lotman 1970, p. 31.
8 Lotman 1992, p. 13.