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30 - Peirce and translatability

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who never had a permanent position at any university, however devoted his entire life to research and wrote thousands of pages, giving birth to one of the two great currents of semiotics. Saussure originated the other, often referred to as Structuralism. Peirce's works were published mostly after his death. This is one of the reasons why, nearly a century after, his thought has still, in part, to be explored.

  The Austrian researcher Dinda Gorlée has devoted much work to the potential applications of Peirce's thought to translation studies. She has analyzed translation (translatability) from the point of view of Peircean semiotics. She also introduced the term semiotranslation into the scientific language.

  In Peirce's opinion, a sign, or representamen, is something that stands for something else in some aspects or capacity and that addresses someone, i.e. creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign or a more developed sign 1. In other words, there is a triad sign-object-interpretant, where "interpretant" stands for the mental image that a sign produces within us.

  If, for example, I read the word "cat", this word evokes a reaction in my mind, an image, a meaning, a psychic sign, which in my mind describes, in nonverbal language, my personal, mental (and partially unconscious) notion of "cat". This psychic sign is individual, subjective, and different for each of us and has, on one hand, a relation to the verbal sign "cat" (the word), on the other hand, a relation to the 'object' cat (the animal).

  As we have said in the units on the translation as a mental process, in translation there is no direct link between a prototext verbal sign and a metatext verbal sign. Each verbal sign, and each group of verbal signs, first evokes the subjective psychic sign in the translator's mind, from which the translator can project another verbal sign, or group of verbal signs onto the receiving language/culture.

  It should be obvious from that, in the Peircean view, that each reading is a subjective interpretation, varying in time, of the text read. Consequently, every translation is a subjective translation, varying in time, of each translated text.

The translated equivalents (in semiotic terminology, the interpretants) cannot, of course, be more than a guide, the invention of the translator 2.

  The "translatability" notion, in Peircean terms, sheds a very original light on the subject, particularly because the sense of the translating act varies in time, space, culture: it is conditioned by the linguistic, cultural, and historical context in which it is received.

Original works are, and often remain over time, authentic, autonomous, unique, and hence essentially irreplaceable entities. A translation, however, lacks the stability of an original work and becomes ossified as a dated text-sign 3.

This is caused not only by the fact that every translation is a subjective interpretation referring to a definite diachronic context, but also because all sign systems are bound to pass from a state of chaos to a state of order, from a state of imagination to a state of rationality.

Nothing is ever fixed: all sign and sign-systems move from a more chaotic, surprising, paradoxical, etc. state and go through translation towards a more ordered, predictable, ratuionalized state [...] Meaning as meant by new translations is destined to remain relative, because the truth can only be reached in the hypothetical long run. New patterns from new translations and from new translators may arise from seemingly nowhere. Instead of eternity, Peircean translations are provided by chance 4.

  After these premises, what remains of the "translatability" notion? First, it is obvious that everything that, in a translator, produces an interpretant is translatable. In other words, any sign is, in some way, translatable. Such translatability, however, has an ephemeral value, to the point that the very notion of "translatability" becomes redundant:

It cannot be emphasized enough that translations become obsolete because the general and specific cultural context (such as the parameters of the communicative task of the translator and the expressive functionality of the text, original as well as translated) changes continuously, thereby undermining questions such as translatability vs. untranslatability and fidelity vs. infidelity, and making them wholly redundant 5.

This implies that a translation can never be considered "finished", is always improvable. It has little sense to speak about "standard edition" or "authorized version", if not from a merely commercial point of view: from a semiotic point of view a version, in itself, is transitory, and the locution "standard version" is an oxymoron 6.

  Interlingual translation is a dynamic comparison of two cultures that eventually emphasizes and complicates the sometimes irreconcilable differences between the two languages and the two cultures 7.

  Translatability is another way to define the parameter of the difference between two cultures in a given time and from a given point of view.

  In the next unit, we will peek at the way the translatability problem is faced and studied by the Estonian scholar Peeter Torop.

Bibliographical references

GORLÉE D. L. Semiotics and the Problem of Translation with Special Reference to the Semiotic of Charles S. Peirce. Alblasserdam, Offsetdrukkerij Kanters, 1993.

PEIRCE C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 vol., Cambridge (MA), Belknap Press, 1931-1966.

1 Peirce, 2, p. 228.
2 Gorlée 2000, p. 125.
3 Gorlée 2000, p. 127.
4 Gorlée 2000, p. 126.
5 Gorlée 2000, p. 127.
6 Gorlée 2000, p. 128.
7 Gorlée 2000, p. 133.