Logos Multilingual Portal

18 - Peirce and the translation of meaning

"You make an effort to read what is written on
the spine of the bindings, though you know it is use-
less, because for you the binding is indecipherable"1.

The term "translation" was often used by Peirce, who employed it referring not to interlingual translation, but to the extraction of meaning from things. When we say that to Peirce the "interpretant" (or "interpretant sign" is that mental sign, that thought, that representation, serving as a mediating tool between sign and object, we use the term coined by Peirce. "interpretant". Sometimes students who study Peirce's thought get confused between the concept of "interpretant" and the concept of "interpreter": the latter referring to a person, the one who interprets, a human being who is making a semiotic act. The former is, instead, a mental sign. It is, so to speak, the mental translation of an object, a sort of subjective key to the perception of a word or object.

Everything may be comprehended or more strictly translated by something: that is has something which is capable of such a determination as to stand for something through this thing; somewhat as the pollen-grain of a flower stands to the ovule which it penetrates for the plant from which it came since it transmits the pe-culiarities of the latter. In somewhat the same sense, though not to the same degree, everything is a medium between something and something2.

Peirce's mode of expression is not very clear, which may be one of the reasons why his thought, nearly a century after his death, is still studied relatively little. We are interested here above all in noting that the mental representation of something (in Peirce's simile, the representation of the pollen-grain to the plant) is a sort of mental translation. In other words, the interpretant is also a "translatant" and, in some scholars' opinion, it could be legitimately called by either term without difference.
  To repeat the notion in our terms of the global approach to translation studies, the perception of something (object or sign) translates the perceived thing into a mental representation, or interpretant. Every following perception/translation/interpretation is a recognition, and thus new interpretation and clarification of the mental representation.

We are capable of understanding representations only by having conceptions or mental representations, which represent the given representation as a representation3.

A mental representation (interpretant) is such only on condition that it also implies the awareness of being a representation. There exists, thus, a level of repre-sentation and a level of meta-representation, i.e. a level of signs and a level of meta-signs. Meaning is built through a less and less uncertain process of truth seeking4, progressing from perception to conception to meta-conception:

Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object5.

When we read, every word evokes a series of associations within us, with such a rapidity that we often do not realize it. This process translates the read signs into interpretants or, if we prefer, into translatants6, being an intersemiotic translation from the verbal into the mental. In this way human thought progresses and evolves, through a series of translations. Until when such evolution occurs within a subject, translations have interpretant signs both as a prototext and as a metatext, and are then intralingual translations (in this case meaning by "language" the mental subjective language, her "machine code", to use a computerbased metaphor). When the evolution of thought passes from one person to another, interpretants need to be translated into words (and in this way communicated outside the individual) and then single receivers must retranslate them into interpretant signs. A double intersemiotic translation occurs.

But a sign is not a sign unless it translates itself into another sign in which it is more fully developed. Thought requires achievement for its own development, and without this development it is nothing. Thought must live and grow in incessant new and higher translations, or it proves itself not to be genuine thought7.

Each of these thought translations is a step higher than the last, and it is not therefore a so-called "faithful" translation, but an enrichment of the previous sign. A sign is a body, whose interpretation is the soul. Every sign must have an interpretant, otherwise it is not a sign.

A sign must have an interpretation or signification or, as I call it, an interpretant. This interpretant, this significations simply a metempsychosis into another body; a translation into another language. This new version of the thought received in turn an interpretation, and its interpretant gets itself interpreted, and so on, until an interpretant appears which is no longer of the nature of a sign8.

Translation - the very process characterizing reading and, in the following phases, the evolution of the material read - is a fundamental link of semiosis, or sign translation. Some maintain that semiosis is unlimited. Peirce maintains, on the other hand, that the ultimate aim of translation is to reveal the ultimate signification of the sign9. Since, however, he doesn't tell us if it is possible or how to arrive at this "ultimate" result, Peirce leads us to believe that, contrarily, there is always room for further translation-interpretation-reading and his statement lends itself to be interpreted even as a convoluted way to say that semiosis, reading, translation never end, that it is always possible to enrich an interpretation with new elements.


Bibliographical references

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

GORLÉE D. L. Semiotics and the Problem of Translation. With Special Reference to the Semiotics of Charles S. Peirce. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994. ISBN 90-5183-642-2.

PEIRCE C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss and Arthur W. Burks, 8 vol., Cambridge (Massachusetts), Belknap, 1931-1966.

PEIRCE C. S. Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition, edited by Max Fisch, Edward C. Moore, Christian J. W. Kloesel et al, Bloomington (Indiana), Indiana University Press, 1982.

1 Calvino 1998 p.242.
2 Peirce, Writings, vol. 1, p. 333. Our emphasis
3 Peirce, Writings, vol. 1, p. 323. Traduzione nostra.
4 Gorlée, p. 119.
5 Peirce, Writings, vol. 3, p. 266. Traduzione nostra.
6 Savan, quoted in Gorlée, p. 120.
7 Peirce, Collected Papers, vol. 5, p. 594. Our emphasis.
8 Peirce, quoted in Gorlée, p. 126. Traduzione nostra.
9 Peirce, quoted in Gorlée, p. 127.