38 - Assimilation, manipulation, inference
"Your mind is occupied by two simultaneous
concerns: the interior one, with your reading, and
the other, with Ludmilla, who is late for your
According to Rumanian researcher, Paul Cornea, the crucial phase in understanding a text consists in a negotiation of the sense, a process having the purpose of mediating between the reader's repertoire and her new reading perceptions. As we have seen when speaking about the hermeneutic circle, the reader integrates partial, temporary meanings of words, sentences, and paragraphs into global hypotheses to check further as the reading process continues2.
The paradox, presented by Cornea, consists of the strict correlation between the meaning of a word to be actualized in a specific occasion and the semantic framework in which that same word is located. To understand the semantic framework of an utterance one needs to actualize given semantic areas of the words it contains and put the other "on hold", but to understand which semantic areas of the words one needs to actualize, it is necessary to know the semantic framework of the text as a whole. Cornea suggests how to get out of this vicious circle:
|By acting simultaneously: trying to "guess" the applicable semantic framework and, in the same time, intuitively presupposing the acceptable meanings of a given situation, according to the famous Wittgenstein's principle according to which "a word makes no sense, it just has uses". It is a process of double adaptation: from the framework to the items and from the items to the framework3.|
The understanding of the whole sense and that of the individual meaning go hand in hand. But if we give priority to one of the elements over the other, it would prevail over the global sense, since sense is not made up of the sum of signs, if anything on the contrary, according to Benveniste, it is sense that can be split into particular signs, words4.
When the reader's activity is at its maximum speed because it does not encounter any obstacles, sense negotiation is so easy and without its full aware control that it is not even perceived as such (negotiation). When the reader's activity slows, it is for some reading difficulty, like an unfamiliar word, for example. Reading can start again only when the word is attributed (temporarily, as always) some meaning, either after consulting some reference, or by abduction, through a conjecture based upon the activation of plausible meanings within the co-text and the context.
In strongly referential texts, in "closed" texts, such decoding difficulties can be involuntarily caused by the author, or by lexical difficulties linked to jargons, technicalities introduced to the reader's attention. In texts that are not of a strictly informative nature, those tending to self-referentiality, from the author's point of view decoding difficulties are a calculated part of the author's strategy; he wants to test the reader's capacity or attention status.
Both for the conventional reader and for the translator/reader, there are two possible stances towards such difficulties: reaction or refusal5. In the latter case, the refusal of the author's provocation, the metatext's reader is an innocent victim of the process. But in the case where one decides, rather, to face the difficulties, Cornea divides the sense negotiation into three procedures: assimilation, symbolic manipulation, and multiple inference.
Assimilation: by this term he means an operation that, using Lotman's terminology, we could define as appropriation from others, a leveling of that element alien to those prevailing within the receiving context. This happens when the semantic context has been realized in a supposedly definitive way, or when some units having their own complete sense have been located and because they are considered useful and coherent within a given decoding perspective must remain without contestable points. The assimilation approach, in a general sense, out of context, can appear as leveling and not keen on the prototext's peculiarities. However, sometimes it is a healthy operation for gaining a perceptive coherence that should exist but does not, owing to a decoding deficiency.
The situation regarding symbolic manipulation is far more complex. The reader is asked here not to limit himself to the actualization of the primary, superficial, literal meaning of an utterance, but to discover a secondary, figurative, metaphorical sense suggested by a decoding difficulty requiring a peculiar interpretation to give cohesion to the whole text.
Here are some examples Cornea makes. The poet Eminescu says "Up the time's waves, my darling, you rise". The interpretation of waves as "sea" (synecdoche) suggests an idea of infinite, while the interpretation of waves as "life difficulties" (metaphor) sends to existential torment. Since it is poetry, it is possible to accept all compatible connotations, so that symbolic manipulation reaches a multiple choice. The poet Stanescu says: "Nothing is more ambiguous than the straight line". The reader's symbolic manipulation in this case consists first of all in realizing that it is a deviant statement, i.e. contrary to common sense. The reader must then understand how the text is not totally deviant, i.e. what pertinence there is. He can then finish up thinking of a straight line as a "latent state of all possible zigzags"6, or at the concept of ambiguity as relative, and depending on the interpreter, the poet, the reader.
Multiple inference is the operation consisting of the simultaneous proposal of interlinked hypotheses with the aim of overcoming a reading difficulty. When negotiating, however, sense on the basis of inferences, a fundamental role is accomplished by subjective evaluations, based of affective parameters, linked to the reader's previous experiences. Evaluation seems to come after sense formation, but actually the two processes are nearly simultaneous. As soon as we have read a text passage, "an involuntary mechanism of subjective commutation signals 'pleasure' or 'displeasure', 'approval' or 'disapproval'; this feeling [...] is emotion"7. In other words, even if at an unaware level, we judge what we perceive, and we do that on the basis of affective parameters, based on the experiences of affective relation to signs and objects evoked by signs. We do that on the basis of our subjective interpretants.
The emotional state preexisting the reading can greatly influence its interpretation, both addressing it in function of the mood, resulting in restrictive, irrational choices, and increasing the desire to continue and complete the reading. Anyway, a "detached" reading, a rational reading prescinding the reader's affective experiences is very difficult, if not impossible. The translator must be aware of that in order to behave consequently. Sense negotiation is "a much more complex operation than it appears at first sight: it requires competence, associative flexibility and reading experience (to overcome difficulties) and, at the same time, the adoption of a vigilant attitude"8 over one's own prejudices, over one's own unconscious ideology to be able to control impulsive reactions and not stray too far from the path indicated - albeit implicitly - by the author's strategy, yielding aberrant decoding.
BENVENISTE É. Problems in General Linguistics, translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek Coral, Gables (Florida), University of Miami Press, 1971, ISBN 087024132X. Original edition: Problèmes de linguistique générale, Paris, Gallimard, 1966.
CALVINO I. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, London, Random House, 1998, ISBN 0-749-39923-6.
CORNEA P. Introduzione alla teoria della lettura, edited by G. Carageani, translated by Romanian by Gabriella Bertini Carageani, Firenze, Sansoni, 1993, ISBN 88-383-1396-2. Original edition: Introducere în teoria lecturii, Bucuresti, Editura Minerva, 1988.
1 Calvino 1979, p. 141.
2 Cornea 1993, p. 187.
3 Cornea 1993, p. 189. Cornea fa qui riferimento anche a Menakem Perry, Literary dynamics. How the order of a text creates its meaning, in Poetics Today, 1-2, Autumn 1979, p. 43.
4 Benveniste, 1994, p. 280.
5 Cornea 1993, p. 191.
6 Cornea 1993, p. 194.
7 Cornea 1993, p. 196.
8 Cornea 1993, p. 197.