Logos Multilingual Portal

1 - Perception, reading, analysis, interpretation

«Of course, the ideal position for reading
is something you can never find» 1.

  While we are translating, we do not think of our activity as being divided into phases. After doing our first translations, many automatic mechanisms come into play that allow us to translate more quickly; at the same time, we are less and less conscious of our activity.
  In order to think about the translation process and to describe it, our essential task consists of analyzing its phases, even if we are aware of the fact that they do not always coincide with perceptibly different or distinguishable moments. If we want to describe a process that often is beyond the translator's own consciousness, we are forced to divide the process into different phases that, in the everyday practice of translation, can reveal the inter-twining, almost entangling, of these phases into one another.

  The first phase of the translation process consists of reading the text. The reading act, first, falls under the competence of psychology, because it concerns our perceptive system. Reading, like translation, is, for the most part, an unconscious process. If it were conscious, we would be forced to consume much more time in the act. Most mental processes involved in the reading act are automatic and unconscious. Owing to such a nature - common and secret in the same time - in our opinion it is important to analyze the reading process as precisely as possible. The works of some perception psychologists will be helpful to widen our knowledge of this first phase of the translation process.

  Simply reading a text is, in itself, an act of translation. When we read, we do not store the words we have read in our minds as happens with data entered by keyboard or scanner into a computer. After reading, we do not have the photographic or auditory recording in our minds of the text read. We have a set of impressions there, instead. We remember a few words or sentences precisely, while all the remaining text is translated from the verbal language into a language belonging to another sign system, one still mostly unknown: the mental language.

  The first act in translating the translator must carry out is an intersemiotic, not interlingual activity. The words are transformed into mental material. It is a process opposite to narration of a dream by the dreamer. A dream is made of images, impressions, odors, flavors, but seldom of words, or numbers. It is what it is nowadays trendy to call a multimedia work, but it is conspicuously, deeply, and intrinsically so. Psychoanalysis is the science dealing mainly with this kind of translation - from mental to verbal, from verbal to mental - and with the pertaining types of translation loss. We will draw from this discipline in order to better understand what occurs in our first translation: reading. This is an aspect of translation that concerns all readers, not only translators.

  Even the first reading of a text, or a reading by someone who does not have the same tools available to a critic, the so called "ingenuous reading", involves a critical act. Reading - when perception is completed - is characterized by a sudden and unaware effort to guess or sense, on the basis of all one has read, and in consideration of the portion of the text read, how the remainder could develop. And reading is an attempt to find a place for that text in a cultural context. This is the so called abduction: the reader makes successive inferences on what will be written, and, step by step, arrives at a confirmation, a refutation, or a missing confirmation of his inferences, allowing him to make further different inferences, adjusting his projection.

  Reading is a first unwitting interpretation, because what is read does not fall onto a tabula rasa, but on a fertile terrain, rich with experiences, ideas, and temporary attempts at understanding. A very subjective terrain, that gives forth subjective interpretations only a part of which may be shared.

  This fact itself implies some problems for the reading translator. However a translator tries to read a text with the intent of embodying the point of view of the most generic reader, she, as a human being, has many limitations and remains an individual, with individual tastes, idiosyncrasies, preferences, dislikes. The translator cannot deny her personality just because her reading is not solely for personal interest but as a prelude to the use of the text by a wider group of readers. Denial, as a defense, is elementary and useless, sometimes dangerous. It is much more sensible to take into account the subjective nature of reading acts, translators included. Reading is the first of a series of processes that transform the metatext into a subjective, fallible interpretation of the rototext. Semiotics and language philosophy will often be very helpful for us to understand the complex nature of reading and its interpretive aspects.

  Some say that the literary critic is a particularly keen reader who has critical tools and is well able to use them. The translator, too, is - or should be - a particularly keen reader equipped with critical tools. Linguistics, literary studies, humanistic computer science are among the disciplines that help us understand how it is possible to critically analyze a text to be translated in order to go beyond the "ingenuous reading", too superficial for a translator to allow herself. We will see what the hermeneutic circle is - the interpretation system - in an untranslated text, and what an important position the translator has when hermeneutics is applied to a translated text. The reading of the text to be translated, or prototext, is the first place where the translator can make a slip.

  The translator is an anomalous reader because she is no longer able to read a potential prototext without thinking - more or less willingly - how she will be able to project that text onto the target culture and language, without thinking at its potential metatexts. This way of reading deforms the interpreting act of reading because it is neither an ingenuous reading, as we have defined it before, nor a "standard" critical reading. It is a reading in which much attention is devoted to the prototext dominant, in which one wonders if it can coincide with the potential metatext dominant. One reflects on the potential impact of the text on the receiving culture and begins to carry out translation-purpose analysis, a very particular critical analysis. In this stage, the semiotics translation tools are very useful.

  In the next unit, we will commence with reading as perceptive act.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 3.