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21 - Understanding the text

"In his arms he has a pile of galleys; he sets
them down gently, as if the slightest jolt could upset
the order of the printed letters"1.

In this second part of our translation course, dedicated to the first stage of the translation process - text perception by the translator - starting from this unit we will give the deserving attention to one of the main modern works on translation: After Babel by George Steiner, whose first chapter is called "Understanding as translation". George Steiner is not a semiotician, nor a psychologist, nor a linguist, even if he perhaps is all that in the same time: he is, for the most part, a literary critic.
  For this reason, George Steiner's metalanguage - the language he uses to speak about translation - is not the same used by the many scientists and researchers whose thought we have examined, even superficially, in the previous units. In exposing some of his most interesting observations, we will, therefore, try to translate what Steiner says into the language to which the readers of this course are now accustomed, with the dictionary and the terms used up to now.
  Having quoted some passages by English classics, and indicated some interpretive paths of the words that make up them, Steiner comes across the problem of the close matching of culture and language. Many words found in Shakespeare, for example, exist in contemporary English too, but often their meaning in the culture that produced them is very different.

How do different cultures and historical epochs use language, how do they conventionalize or enact the manifold possible relations between word and object, between stated meaning and literal performance?2

As we can see, speaking of relations between "word and object", Steiner implicitly quotes Quine and, more generally, refers to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis according to which, for the first time, the inversion of the relation between language and culture is postulated: language is not a mere tool for expressing a content elaborated autonomously by culture; on the contrary, different linguistic structures give rise to different intellectual structures and vice versa, to the point that it is not possible to think of interpreting a text neglecting its cultural coordinates. It becomes ever more difficult to neatly distinguish form from content, and semantics - the science that studies the meaning of words and utterances - is in greater and greater difficulty. As in psychoanalysis, where the question posed is "terminable or interminable analysis?", in the search for the meaning of a text we also face an endless series of interpretations. And the more interesting a text is, regardless of its age, the easier to ascertain such interminability of the interpretation, which is exactly what keeps it interesting over time.

Explorations of semantic structure very soon raise the problem of infinite series. Wittgenstein asked where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop. An exercise in 'total reading' is also potentially unending3.

The conclusion that Steiner draws is that any careful reading of a text is an act of manifold interpretation that, in most cases, occurs without a conscious awareness. Like 'false friends' that in a text in a language different from the mother tongue of the reader attract her interpretive trend toward meanings close to similar-sounding words of the mother tongue of the reader - inducing her to read morbid thinking absentmindedly "morbido", and only in a second reading correcting herself and recalling that it is probably something similar to "morboso" - , there are false friends even within the same language. Steiner offers some significant examples: interest and simplicity, having a meaning very different in Shakespeare from the one a contemporary reader would easily attribute them.
  Steiner holds that, as we have already said, language evolves with time, not only historical time, but also subjective time. Moreover, the metalinguistic assertions about language are destined to modify the very language we are talking about; our subject is therefore very plastic and difficult to catch in a moment of stasis.

The sum of linguistic events is not only increased but qualified by each new event. If they occur in temporal sequence, no two statements are perfectly identical. Though homologous, they interact. When we think about language, the object of our reflection alters in the process (thus specialized or metalanguages may have considerable influence on the vulgate). In short: so far as we experience and 'realize' them in linear progression, time and language are intimately related: they move and the arrow is never in the same place4.

Being so dynamic, a word's status carries along a part of its history. It is substantially the notion of intertextuality that Steiner never names but constantly describes. Each word or locution carries also with it the history of that word or locution, so that a full reading5 evokes not only immediately accessible meanings, but also other vague allusions. We have seen an example in Steiner's own text in the first part of this unit when we quoted the sentence about word and object and the allusion to Quine's' theory.   One of the objections often addressed to such theories on the ephemeral, unstable quality of meaning is that this principle would be applicable only to literary texts, without any application for texts constituting most of the existing mass of literature. The example taken from Steiner's essay shows that even a 'dry' informative text can contain implicit intertextual links, in which case the reader - all the more reason the translator-reader - must know what is in store for her.
  In order to undertake such a complete reading we need many tools, on which Steiner expands in details. We will deal with that subject in the next unit.


Bibliographical references

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

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation. Second edition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-19-282874-6.

1 Calvino 1979, p. 98.
2 Steiner 1992, p. 7.
3 Steiner 1992, p. 8.
4 Steiner 1992, p. 18-19.
5 Steiner 1992, p. 24.