Logos Multilingual Portal

25 - Meaning and sense

"And then, listening to someone who is
translating from another language involves a
fluctuation, a hesitation over the words,
a margin of indecision, something vague,

Now that we have seen what some researchers think of reading and text perception in general, let us examine more specifically the repercussions on the individuation of the sense of a text from the translation studies point of view regarding its transposition and recoding.
  Aleksandr Davìdovich Shvejcer analyzed this problem by first distinguishing meaning (znachenie) from sense (smysl). Meanings as such refer to the concrete structure of the language. Meanings, in other words, derive from purely linguistic signs and are to be searched for only in the framework of the code they are part of. Since a culture's world view is expressed by its natural language also in the form of the quantity of words existing in that language and allocation of expressed sememes among the words that can express them, it doesn't make sense to look for a word meaning in a word in another language or another culture. Every word has, in this view, only a relatively exact meaning exclusively within the linguistic code of its own language.
  Taking this point to heart, it would be presumptuous to plan or to write a bilingual dictionary (how is it possible to describe the "exact" meaning, albeit the linguistic meaning, of a word with the words of another linguistic code?), while it would be a little less risky to make monolingual dictionaries in which, within the same code, one tries to describe the meaning of a word with other words.

From this point of view, to interpret a text means to identify the concrete designations (oboznachenija) through given meanings in the corresponding language, while translating means to find, for concrete designations already identified in the prototext, meanings in the metatext language suitable for expressing these very meanings2.

Shvejcer implicitly holds that, however hard it might be to find meanings of words by using words of other codes, it is possible in most cases to understand what a word means in the specific context. Maybe it is a rather optimistic vision, but we continue following his argument for the time being.

As we know, by altering the cultural context, we alter the semiotic network of reference as well, and therefore we alter - or at least we may be altering - the sense of what we say. We can therefore define the distinction between sense and designation in this way: sense is the value acquired by a designation within a specific culture. The more the two cultures - of the prototext and of the metatext - are distant from one another, the farther apart the chronotopes are that form them are, the more frequent instances of incongruity between designation and sense are, and the wider the gap between designation of linguistic meaning and cultural meaning (sense). Designation is a category of language, while sense is a category of speech, of enunciation, of text. Vygotsky said that "The meaning of a word is a power that realizes itself in live speech in the form of sense"3. Shvejcer, in his wake, says that

['] between meaning and sense there is no insurmountable barrier. Sense is the meaning of a linguistic unit actualized in a speech act4.

In interlingual translation, we nearly always need to translate not the meaning but the sense, it is therefore extremely important to bear in mind this distinction. But is it always possible to distinguish sense and meaning and, above all, remain mindful that sense is such a high entity as to remain expressible independent of its linguistic and cultural context?
  On that point L'vovskaja is optimistic, because she feels that one should answer "yes". For the Russian researcher linguistic meaning maintains its worth within its own code as a systemic value, while sense can survive to a different context but is expressed differently in different languages:

['] meaning is a linguistic, i.e. systemic, category, therefore meanings of single linguistic units in the different languages can be incongruent by many parameters (contents descriptions, volume and place in the system) [while sense] is a category of communication, it doesn't depend on the differences between the languages and can be expressed through different linguistic means in different languages5.

Let us try to exemplify such a difference with a text. Shvejcer proposes the example of killing, murder and manslaughter. While killing is generic and means "slaughter" without further specification, in law terms murder means "voluntary homicide" and manslaughter "unwilling homicide". The distinctive feature between murder and manslaughter is willfulness/unwillfulness of the act, but this doesn't mean that in any co-text - speech act context - is necessary to specify "voluntary homicide" or "unintentional homicide".
  For example, in the sentence «Am I supposed to have committed a murder?», the situation described in the text up to this point neutralizes the opposition willfulness/unwillfulness, therefore a translation like: «Am I supposed to have committed a deliberate killing?» would sound very strange.
  There are, however, instances in which the opposition willfulness/unwillfulness is operational, and therefore the understanding of the text is possible only by taking the opposition into account. In the sentence "The Pentagon lawyers are leaning over backwards to prove that the Songmy massacre was killing, not murder», such distinction is fundamental, therefore the translator must acknowledge that too6.
  There are cases in which the difference between meaning and sense is rather marked, but the context (and the similarity of the two cultures as to the possibility that such contextual situations occurs) can be helpful to the translator.
  In the matter-of-fact situation in which someone receives a telephone call bound to get to another receiver, in the different language there are the expressions

  Vy ne tuda popali
  You must have the wrong number
  Sie haben falsch gewählt
  Lei ha sbagliato numero

In modern cultures in which the use of the telephone is widespread, it is easy for a reader to understand what situation is similar to the one described and reinterpret it using words most probably used in the metaculture in the situation described in the protoculture. Therefore, a translation of the typical Russian response such as this one:

  You have not hit there.

would sound very strange. From the point of view of communication efficiency it is much better to insert the sentence "You must have the wrong number» in the text without thinking of the problems of linguistic matching of the single words.
  On the other hand, this argument induces us to consider meaning above and beyond the speech acts, as well as their markedness. The Russian sentence Vy ne tuda popali is not marked, i.e. it is what anyone could most probably say in a situation such as the one described. But let us imagine that the answer is on the other side marked, that, for example, someone on the phone says
Who dials this number usually wants to talk to someone else.
In this case, an adequate translation must account for such markedness (here it is a signal to the reader to indicate that the speaker has an unusual way of speaking, leaving unsaid the reason of such strangeness) and try to reproduce it with a speech act as much marked, in a similar way if possible.
  We discover that the assumed uniqueness of sense is elusive, even if we rise from the linguistic code level to the semiotic codes level. What happens, as to meaning, between two linguistic codes - The impossibility of finding a "matching" word for one linguistic code in another happens - and occurs for sense as well. In two semiotic codes, there can be a huge difference in sense between two perfectly identical actions. For example, to put one's hands in one's pockets, in some cultures, for an adult male has the connotation of a rude, trivial gesture, while in other cultures it is accepted as normal social behavior. This difference occurs without considering all the contemporary cultures where they have neither trousers nor pockets, nor cultures of past times. No need to be amazed if even the simple sentence «You must have the wrong number» in some culture is perceived as a hostile or rude communication. Someone could be offended because the dialed number is called "wrong", when actually it is an ethically correct number that has the quality of not being useful to connect with another specific telephone.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, London, Random House, 1979, ISBN 0-749-39923-6.

L'VOVSKAJA Z. D. Teoreticheskie problemy perevoda, Moskvà, Nauka, 1985.

SCVEJCER A. D. Teorija perevoda: status, problemy, aspekty, Moskvà, Nauka, 1988. ISBN 5-02-010882-0.

VYGOTSKIJ L. S. Izbrannye psihologicheskie issledovanija, Moskvà, 1956.

1 Calvino 1979, p. 67.
2 Shvejcer 1988, p. 113.
3 Vygorskij 1956, p. 370.
4 Shvejcer 1988, p. 114.
5 L'vovskaja 1985, p. 81-82.
6 Shvejcer 1988, p. 116-117.