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37 - Intuition, experience, generalization - part two

"At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the
sentence I am about to write be the one the woman
is reading at that same moment"1.

The memory of past perceptions creates a sort of subjective, partially unconscious, data bank that, though, albeit at a subliminal level, actively intervenes to bundle similar percepts and systematize them into categories. The interpretations produced by a text string are built from a historical memory that provides for the progressive comparison of equal or similar text string and, if applicable, assimilated into the previous perceptions and interpretations.
  The reoccurrence of such associations is what produces habit, generalization of experience and the attempt to hoist a bundle of experiences to the status of norm (regularity):

Habits have grades of strength varying from complete dissociation to inseparable association. These grades are mixtures of promptitude of action, say excitability and other ingredients not calling for separate examination here. The habit-change often consists in raising or lowering the strength of a habit. Habits also differ in their endurance (which is likewise a composite quality)2.

The experienced reader reads guided by interpretive habit, thanks to which his reading can proceed speedily following general norms of regularity, until it does not stumble in an area of marked text, in dangerous waters requiring visual navigation, particular attention in order to be able to undertake specific aesthetical and interpretive peculiarities. Here habit does not answer the reader's interpretive purpose, so one has to compensate for that by a fresh use of ad hoc analytic application.
  As you can see from the diagram above, habits and generalizations are not a dead end but, as the other two vertexes of the triad, communicate with each of the other elements. We have seen that instinctive perception gradually evolves into an accumulation of experience, and that the accumulation of experience in turn becomes the formation of habits. But habits, once formed, when they begin to create perceptual regularities and faster reading, are they static entities? Do generalizations have an absolute and permanent value?
  The answer is no, and it is easy to see why. Experience and habit are founded on the possibility of cataloguing reading and interpretation perceptions. Such cataloguing implies simplification and the institution of a norm (intended, in a descriptive sense, as a statistically more frequent case, regularity) and of a series of modes, of times and of quantities of standard deviations from the norm.
  As a consequence, in order for a passage of text to produce an alarm reaction in the reader, for the semiautomatic reading system to call for an analytic mode of reading so that it can face an abnormal difficulty in understanding or interpretation, the experience must be deviant from the so far prepared models. This is an element of novelty.
  The element of novelty, the marked text, calls the attention of the watchful reading system that, after a time of difficulty-laden decoding, accomplishes the interpretive act. At the end, the new element is read and interpreted, and the cycle perception - experience - habit is closed, with the peculiarity that the new perception give birth to a new experience, to which the (old) habit is not applicable and must, therefore, be adapted. At this point the alarm signal sounds and we have - for the necessary passage - conscious, slow, analytic decoding. At the end of such new experience, the decoding of an abnormal text, the habit vertex of the triad is, however, integrated, enriched, because old habit resulted inadequate for facing the new experience, and emerged from the confrontation modified, strengthened. For this reason, the triangular cycle of knowledge acquisition is unending.
  A reader's experience - no matter if the reading is translation oriented - must be very rich if one demands that the consolidated habit is relatively stable. In a low-experience reader, the accumulated data bank is so poor that the first novelties radically and drastically shake its feeble habits.
  If the reader is a translator as well, if her reading produces the creation of a metatext of which she is author and of which a second audience will be the set of readers, her experience must be very rich, she cannot afford (in strictly economic terms also) to read slowly and go back continuously on her steps in the light of the novelties in the instinct - experience - habit tricotomy. How the experience of a translator can be defined?

A good translator is someone who has never quite experienced enough to do her or his job well; just one more language, one more degree, one more year abroad, fifty or sixty more books, and s/he'll be ready to start doing the job properly. But that day never comes; not because the translator is incompetent or inexperienced, not because the translator's work is substandard, but because a good translator always wants to know more, always wants to have experienced more, never feels quite satisfied with the job s/he just completed. Expectations stay forever a step or three in front of reality, and keep the translator forever restlessly in search of more experience3.

This perspective shouldn't discourage. It does not mean that translators must constantly feel anguished for the inadequacy of their experiences; on the contrary, curiosity must never allow to falter their attention for the new, for the different.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, London, Random House, 1998, ISBN 0-749-39923-6.

PEIRCE, C. S., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, Arthur W. Burks, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, 1931-1958.

ROBINSON D. Becoming a Translator. An Accelerated Course, London and New York, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0-415-14861-8

1 Calvino 1998, p. 170.
2 Peirce, 5, 477
3 Robinson 1997, p. 111-112.