Logos Multilingual Portal

6 - Reading - Part one

  When a person reads, his brain deals with many tasks in such rapid sequences that all seems to happen simultaneously. The eye examines (from left to right as far as many Western languages are concerned, but also from right to left or from top to bottom) a series of graphic signs (graphemes) in succession, which give life to syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters, and texts.

ON THE NET (english)
Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies.


ON THE NET(french)

  In the first phase, in which a person reads the first letter, he immediately compares it with a whole repertoire of letters (the Latin alphabet, in the case of the English language), until he recognizes it and then goes on to decipher the next grapheme. All this happens without the reader being aware of the process.

  The same goes for listening, where the sounds are first transformed into phonemes (minimum phonetic units with no meaning of their own but which take part in the signification), then into syllables and so on, until the deciphering of a sensible message is completed. Unlike reading, in which the words are separated by a graphic distance (a non-written space), when listening it is necessary to be able to distinguish where a word finishes and where the next word begins, considering that, when speaking, words are not always separated by distinct silent pauses.

  Once the reader has completed the decoding of the first word, he mentally reconstructs the pronunciation of the whole word, which is not always the sum of all the single graphemes in succession. (For example the let's take the letter 's' in the word 'pleasure', in the word "silent" and in the word "shut"). Therefore it is necessary to assess the options and dismiss the inappropriate ones. Vice versa, the listener often mentally reconstructs the way a word is written, which does not always have a one-to-one correspondence with the way it is pronounced.

  At this point the reader and listener have decoded the visual and auditory form of the first word. This is compared to a whole repertoire of visual and/or auditory forms which are present in the brain, until one or more correspondences are found (when there is more than one sound correspondence it is called "homophony", when there is more than one graphic correspondence it is called "homography"; it is also necessary to take into consideration all the imperfect but possible correspondences due to mistakes in pronunciation, unclear writing, sound disturbances, miswritten words or typographical errors).

  This repertoire of auditory and visual structures is what differentiates one language from another, one code from another. And it is this very difference that explains why it is said that the relationship between significant (sound or sign) and signified is arbitrary. If that weren't the case, all natural codes would be identical in their relationship of signification. To locate the matching means to refer to a precise linguistic system.

['] decoding the source-text linguistic signs with reference to the language system (i.e. determining the semantic relationships between the words and utterances of the text) 1.

  For people who know more than one language, or at least recognize the graphic signs or sounds of more than one language, it's necessary to operate a code selection before choosing the possible right matches. This also occurs when in the same sentence there is a word from a different code, which necessarily has different spelling and pronunciation rules (for example: "She's examining the curricula").

  In a first phase, locating words doesn't mean locating their possible meanings, but only the mental reproduction of the word itself.

A word can be substituted by its representation or mnestic image, as it happens with any other object 2.

Some scholars have confused this stage with the internal thought phase, which, as we'll see, is completely different.

In authors from the past we always find the sign "equal to" between the reproduction of words from the memory and internal language. But in fact they are two different processes that should be differentiated 3.

That is to say, one thing is thinking of a word, and another thing is thinking of its meanings. When reading takes place without internal or external disturbances, nonetheless, the passage from the process of mental reproduction to the research for possible meanings is very fast.

  The speed of this process (or, more appropriate, of the succession of these processes) does not depend just on the familiarity acquired of each single letter and word (which is more relevant when someone learns a foreign language) but, above all, on the familiarity with the most frequent graphic/phonetic structures. In fact, an expert reader will not be reading all the letters of all the words of all the sentences, but will pick up a tiny portion that is necessary to make sense of the unit in his mind, on the basis of his encyclopedic competence.

  The perception and selection of the auditory or graphic matches, in its turn, is based on the co-text and on the context in which the word occurs: in this case corrections based on the encyclopedic experience of the reader may occur too. If, for example, in a cookery book the word 'astronomy' is encountered, the experience of the reader will mentally tend to correct the word into 'gastronomy', whose occurrence being much more probable in that context.

   This operation can also be called: 'defining the conceptual content of an utterance by drawing on the referential context in which it is embedded [']' 4.

  Reading is an active mental process, in which the reader is engaged in reconstructing the author's intent. The signs drawn on paper (and the sounds that make up oral messages) induce an active mind to think about possible alternatives in order to re-construct the contents of the message.

  While reading, at one end we have an original text (as in inter-linguistic translation, main subject of this course) but, at the other end of the process, there's no text, just a set of hypotheses and guesses about the possible meanings and intentions of the author.

During the analysis stage, the translator reads/listens to the source text, drawing on background, encyclopedic knowledge ' including specialist domain knowledge and knowledge of text convention ' to comprehend features contained in the text 5.

  The words from the source text enter our mind and produce a global effect which is not a set of words, i.e. it's not a metatext, as it happens in inter-linguistic translation, but a set of entities, that, however hardly specifiable, are mental and not verbal. This means that in our mind there must be a sort of internal code, (or sub-verbal code, as we have said in the previous units) which, on the basis of our perceptive experience, subdivides and classifies possible perceptions.

We have a process here ['] that goes from the outside to the inside, a process in which language [rech´] volatilizes into thought [mysl´]. Hence the structure of this language and all its manifold differences with the structure of external language 6.

  Vygotskij has conducted research on children, who in certain stages of their development tend to use an 'egocentric' language (according to Piaget), meaning that it is a language the child uses essentially addressing to himself. According to Vygotskij, to study the egocentric language of children is important because it is the embryo of the adults' inner language. And he writes:

['] the language addressed to oneself cannot find at all its true expression in the structure of external language, which is, by its own nature, completely different; the form of this language, which is extremely peculiar because of its structure ['], must necessarily have its own particular form of expression, since its phasic aspect ceases to coincide with the phasic aspect of external language 7.

In the following unit we will have a closer look at what this means exactly.


BELL R. T. Psycholinguistic/cognitive approaches. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London-New York, Routledge, 1998, p. 185-190. ISBN 0-415-09380-5

DELISLE J. Translation. An Interpretive Approach. Ottawa, Ottawa University Press, 1988.

VYGOTSKIJ L. S. Myshlenie i rech´. Psihologicheskie issledovanija. Moskvà-Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe social´no-èkonomicheskoe izdatel´stvo, 1934.

1 Delisle 1988.
2 Vygotskij 1990, p. 344.
3 Vygotskij 1990, p.345.
4 Delisle 1988.
5 Bell 1990, p.187.
6 Vygotskij 1990, p.347.
7 Vygotskij 1990, p.354.