Logos Multilingual Portal

29 - Lotman and translatability - part 2

In the previous unit, we have seen that Lotman imagines the whole of reciprocally interacting texts and languages as a system, and calls this system "semiosphere". One of the main qualities of this system is its delimitedness. The semiosphere is confined by the space which surrounds it; it can be extrasemiotic (a space where signification processes do not occur, like a natural space) or heterosemiotic (i.e. belonging to another semiotic system, for example, a musical text versus a pictorial text) 1.

  As it happens in the geographic world, it is the notion of "border" to recall the concept of "translation". Where there are no borders, there is no need for translations:

[...] the semiotic border is the sum of the bilingual translation "filters" passing through which the text is translated into another language (or other languages) that are outside a given semiosphere. The "closedness" of a semiosphere manifests itself in the fact that this can get in touch neither with heterosemiotic texts nor with non-texts. In order for these texts to appear real in the eyes of a given semiosphere, it has to translate them into one of the languages within its inner space, i.e. to semiotize the facts. For this reason the border points of the semiosphere can be considered similar to the sensorial receptors translating outer stimuli into the language of our nervous system, or to blocks of translation that adapt to a given semiotic sphere, a world that is foreign to it 2.

The semiosphere, that can be thought of as larger or smaller according to the definition of its inner and outer boundaries, is a huge translation organism. Translation is at the basis of the existence of sense, of culture:

The function of any border or film - from the living cell membrane to the biosphere as a film (according to Vernadskij) covering our planet and to the semiosphere border - consists in the limitation of penetration, in filtering, and in the adaptive reprocessing of the external into the internal. At different levels, this invariant function occurs in different ways. At the semiosphere level, it means a distinction between its own from the others', a filtering of the outer communications and their translation into its own language, as well as transforming the outer non-communications into communications, i.e. semioticizing what comes from outside and its transformation into information.
From this point of view, all the translation mechanisms serving the outer contacts belong to the semiosphere structure 3.

According to Lotman's theory, there is a complex hierarchy of systems composing the semiosphere and shaping (cultural) life of the universe causing continuous reciprocal interactions and influences, from the minimal level of the right hemisphere/left hemisphere dialectics within a subject's brain (see the units on JAkobsón), up through the maximum level of the entire universe, thanks to their differences.

The information translation across these boundaries, the interplay between different structures and substructures, the direct uninterrupted semiotic "trespassings" of one or other structure into the "other's territory" shape the generation of meaning, the production of new information 4.

In other words, translation is the basis of sense generation. What is inside a system (a fact, a phenomenon, an event), until the moment when it remains what it is without being described, is outside the semiosphere, it remains in the extrasemiotic world. This argument is closely connected to what we have said in the first part of this course about the relation between thought (mental material) and its verbalization (translation into verbal material).

  As a thought, without any verbal description, remains an extrasemiotic fact, it does not become meaningful for any system outside the individual psyche if not translated into words, so an outer, extrapsychic phenomenon, (for example the presence of an oak tree in a meadow) remains a fact that does not exist in the semiosphere until when it is translated into some kind of code. From a semiotic point of view, it remains 'other' until that moment when the semiosis world incorporates it.

  If in every meadow an oak grew, if all the world were made of meadows and so on, if, in other words, in the semiosphere the level of entropy were zero, in the semiosphere there would be no life, the semiotic world would be dead.

The structural heterogeneity of semiotic space creates reservoirs of dynamic processes and is one of the mechanism through which new information is elaborated within the sphere 5.

  From this point of view, the concept of translatability acquires a new light. The difference between systems is no longer the problem par excellence of translators. On the contrary, the presence of this difference is necessary to the life of the cultural world. Translation loss is no longer viewed as a cumbersome burden the managing of which is a problem to translators. The fact that it is never possible to translate everything guarantees the preservation of differences and the preservation of cultural life.

  The translator, in a broad sense, as intended in the total translation view, is thus the tool of life in the semiosphere. Translatability is a relative concept, but a minimum level of translatability is guaranteed by the contiguity of many systems - many semiospheres - within the universe.

  In the next unit, we will examine the translatability concept with the aid of the thought of one of the founders of semiotics, Charles S. Peirce.


Bibliographical references

LOTMAN JU. Izbrannye stat´i v trëh tomah. vol. 1. Stat´i po semiotike i tipologii kul´tury p. 11-24. Tallinn, Aleksandra, 1992. ISBN 5-450-01551-8.

1 Lotman 1992, p. 13.
2 Lotman 1992, p. 13. My emphasis.
3 Lotman 1992, p. 14. My emphasis.
4 Lotman 1992, p. 17.
5 Lotman 1992, p. 16.