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8 - Writing as a mental process

  We said in the previous units that reading is a sort of translation from verbal language into mental material or, if we prefer, from outer verbal language into inner nonverbal language. The individual reads, and perceives what he reads, drawing interpretations and inferences about the possible intentions of the author of the message. (In a different part of the course, we will define our concept of "author".) We talked about cognitive types as entities helping the individual to categorize past experiences in order to organize present and future perception.

ON THE NET - (english)
BELL, R. T. - Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies.
American Psychoanalytic Association

ON THE NET - (italian)


  If what is perceived is not made of words, the perception need not necessarily pass through the verbalization process: the individual is able to perceive and to categorize his sensations even without translating them into words. This fact does not preclude his recognizing the perceived object in case of reoccurrence.

The first and most important feature of inner language is its very peculiar syntax. [...] This peculiarity is shown in the apparent fragmentation, discontinuity, and contraction of the inner language as compared to the outer one 1.
[There is] a definitely peculiar tendency to reduce sentences and phrases; the predicate and the parts of the sentence linked to it are preserved, while the subject and the words linked to it are omitted. Such prevalence of predicates in the inner language syntax becomes apparent [...] with strict consistency [...] so that in the end, resorting to the interpolation method, we should suppose that the main syntactic form of the inner language is pure and absolute prevalence of predicates 2.

"Putting into words" ' translation into an outer code, common to other speakers ' is uniquely crucial to the social life of the individual, in order to share the content of one's cognitive and perceptive acts.

  We said also that the signifier/signified relation is an arbitrary one. This fact is proved by the differences among natural languages: between the perception of an object-horse and the production of either the sound "horse" or the graphic characters h o r s e there is no necessary relation. For a Frenchman the same object is "cheval", for an Italian "cavallo" and so on.

  We also stressed that a signifier's semantic field is not the same for two individuals, because everyone links 'consciously or unconsciously 'definite subjective experiences to each signifier. For this reason, a signifier evokes different memories, feelings, and images in every individual. It is therefore all the more unlikely that the semantic field of "horse" completely matches the semantic field of "cheval", "cavallo" etc.

  In other words, every natural language (and every idiolect, i.e. the use of language peculiar to every "individual, his language or personal 'style', disregarding the group or community where the individual belongs»3) categorizes human knowledge in a different way. Language is, therefore, not only a means to communicate with other members of our species; it is also a system to categorize perceptions, ideas, images, and emotions.

  In our minds, two parallel, overlapping categorizing systems seem to be at work, one independent from the other. The cognitive type system, acting only at a personal and inner level; and the verbal categorizing system, also useful for outer communication, although in a partial and imperfect way.

  Let us take dreams as an example. Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, has analyzed the main features of the mechanisms leading to the formation of dreams 4. Dreams are not made of words; they emerge from a nonverbal space within us.

Thought processes and affects are represented in dreams in a visual and (less frequently) auditory form. Other modes of sensory experience ' touch, smell, taste, and kinesthetic sensation ' also appear in dreams. [...] Two other elements of the dream work are plastic and symbolic representation, that is, the transformation of thoughts into sensory symbols and images; and secondary elaboration, the linking together of the separate images and elements of the dream into a relatively coherent story or action. Sometimes secondary elaboration or revision does not occur and the dream is recalled as a disjointed, incoherent, or bizarre series of images or phrases. 5

When we recall a dream soon after awaking, such memories, regardless of their vividness, are made of nonverbal material. If such material is stored as it is (in nonverbal form), it follows the same fate as every other memory: it is eroded with time more or less rapidly, depending on the circumstances.

  We get a completely different result if we try to write down the content of the dream or to describe it to somebody: a genuine translation is required. Images, sounds, and other feelings have to be translated into words. When we put a dream into words, we are frequently unsatisfied with our translation. The text we can produce omits some feelings and images that are not describable in words and mental facts that, if verbalized, lose expressiveness.

  A dream can sometimes leave us such strong feelings, that for many hours we cannot shake its influence, even if with our rational mind we are aware that what we dreamed has not happened in the outer world, just inside us, in our mental imaginary world. Very seldom we can share the strength of such feelings. It is easier for individuals who can express themselves through nonverbal languages, such as representational arts, music, body expression, or even through poetry, in which words and sounds are equally expressive.

  What is more, our diurnal, rational mind cannot understand the logic of some passages in dreams. If I was on a mountaintop, how is it possible that, without any journey, I eventually found myself lying on my carpet at home? For this reason, when we use "secondary elaboration", our role as chroniclers forces us ' unconsciously sometimes ' to adjust, modify, and/or review our verbal version of the dream so as to give the story cohesion, a plot, which can be completely remote from the original dream material.

[[...] inner language, due to its psychological nature, is a particular formation, a particular kind of verbal activity, with extremely specific features; it has a very complex relationship with other kinds of verbal activity. [...] Inner language is a process or transformation of thought [mysl´] into words; it is their materialization and objectification 6.

If, on one hand, such materialization is incomplete and produces a loss, on the other hand it can be a precious tool to increase control over our mind. From Freud on, many therapies for the treatment of different kinds of neuroses are based on the use of words: the patient tries to translate into words feelings, anxieties, dreams, mental associations, and the therapist encourages such objectifying process, such materializing process for its liberating values. Before verbalization, many inner links among different thoughts, images, and feelings appear to be inexistent ' like temporarily inactivated hypertextual links. After verbalization they become apparent, and, in some cases, their acknowledgment can untie inner knots, release tensions, resolve mental short circuits that can be the basis of neurotic symptoms, giving the patient a sense of release and providing him, at the same time, an increased insight.

  Writing ' translation of inner nonverbal language into outer verbal language ' is an activity that, being a phase of the same translation process involved in professional interlingual transfer, has moreover much in common with intersemiotic translation. The presence, as a replacement for an original text, of what Vygotsky calls "inner language" and Eco calls "cognitive types", and the fact that outer verbal language is not only a means of expression but also a tool to categorize experience has many implications. Such implications relate to the writer's mind, the reason behind the writing, and the projective receiver of the written text which may be a real person (in the case of correspondence) or a hypothetic, implied receiver, a model of reader (as in the case of books).

  We can also take into consideration the case of writing as an attempt at self-therapy, of solitary meditation, without any postulated receiver. For some, this, only, is authentic writing. Anna Maria Ortese wrote:

Writing is looking for tranquility, and sometimes to find it. It is to go back home. The same goes for reading. People that truly write or read ' i.e. just for themselves ' go back home; they feel good. People who never write or read, or do so just to obey an order, for practical reasons, are always out of their home, even if they have many a home. They are poor, and they make life poorer 7.

Gianni Celati, referring to a short story by Marco Belpoliti, La linea evapora nel piano [The line evaporates into the plane], admires the geometric metaphor of writing as a linear activity whose product can proliferate acquiring a further dimension.

['] the idea of the line that evaporates sublimating into the plane, letting people think at geometry in a more creative way, moreover makes people think that writing is exactly a line producing a plane. Here we see the daydreaming of the intellect expand (their master being Italo Calvino) 8.

In the following units, we will examine the repercussions on the translation process of all these ways of intending "writing".


AMERICAN PSYCHOANALYTIC ASSOCIATION Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, ed. B. E. Moore and B. D. Fine, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-300-04701-0.

CELATI G., ed., Narratori delle riserve. Milano, Feltrinelli, 1992. ISBN 88-07-01439-4.

FREUD S. Die Traumdeutung. Leipzig, Franz Deuticke, 1900.

FREUD S. The Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, London, Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-1974, vol. 4 and 5.

LAING R. D. Knots. New York, Pantheon Books, 1970. ISBN 0-394-43211-8.

MARCHESE, A. Dizionario di retorica e di stilistica. Milano, Mondadori, 1991. ISBN 88-04-14664-8.

VYGOTSKY L. S. Myshlenie i rech´. Psihologicheskie issledovanija. Moskvà-Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe social´no-èkonomicheskoe izdatel´stvo, 1934. English translation: Thought and Language; translated from the Russian and edited by Alex Kozulin, Cambridge (Massachusetts), MIT Press, 1986.

1 Vygotsky 1990, p. 363.
2 Vygotsky 1990, p. 365.
3 Marchese 1991, p. 140.
4 Freud 1900.
5 American Psychoanalytic Association 1990, p. 57.
6 Vygotsky 1990, p. 346-347.
7 "Scrivere è cercare la calma, e qualche volta trovarla. È tornare a casa. Lo stesso che leggere. Chi scrive e legge realmente, cioè solo per sé, rientra a casa; sta bene. Chi non scrive o non legge mai, o solo su comando ' per ragioni pratiche ' è sempre fuori casa, anche se ne ha molte. È un povero, e rende la vita più povera". Celati 1992, p. 11.
8 "Ma questa idea della linea che evapora sublimandosi nel piano, mentre fa pensare alla geometria in modo più immaginativo del solito, fa anche venire in mente che la scrittura è appunto una linea che produce un piano. Ecco come si espandono i trasognamenti dell'intelletto (maestro Italo Calvino)". Celati 1992, p. 22.