Logos Multilingual Portal

18 - Equivalence - first part

«[...] la mohína Facultad semivacía y a media luz, tomada ya por las limpiadoras que a esas horas se sienten dueñas de los residuos y así dan ordenes o ahuyentan a los profesores»1.

"[...] the gloomy university, half-empty, its light dimmed, already taken over by the cleaning ladies who at those hours feel themselves to be in charge of the day''s residue and shoo away or give orders to the professors [...]"2.

The notion of equivalence in translation research has roots dating back to the time before the existence of a science dedicated to translation and the application of semiotic criteria to its study. The first researchers using the word "equivalence" in the context of translation are considered generally pure linguists who dealt with problems relating to translation meant merely as re-presentation of verbal signs as other verbal signs. The two natural languages involved in the transformation, in this view, are generally considered - at least implicitly - isomorphic codes (i.e. consisting of elements having the same form). Catford, for example, has defined translation

replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in another language3.

Since "equivalence" derives from the Latin "equivalere", meaning "to have the same value", it is for the most part a quantitative notion whose application to spontaneously originated languages in linguistic exchange between speakers implies some affinities of these languages and artificially created languages, constructed like mathematical codes, that are isomorphic.
  In this view, translation is a matter of substituting each element of the protolanguage with an equivalent element of the metalanguage. It is a rather naïve notion that doesn''t account for the contribution given by semiotics, and by cultural studies and psychology to the study of language.
  There is a passage in Peirce that bears the appearance of a superficial contradiction, while defining the notion of "interpretant" prevents its application to the translation field:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign4.

Peirce, therefore, uses the notion of "equivalence", specifying that it is a subjective phenomenon ("addresses somebody"), and such equivalence holds only "for some respect" and "capacity"). Therefore it is a subjective, temporary, contingent equivalent. Or, maybe, it is not event an equivalent, it is a "more developed sign". Peirce probably uses the word "equivalent" here referring not to the etymological sense of "parity of value", but referring to the secondary sense of "equal in efficiency, correspondence".
  Such meaning of the word "equivalent" is reinforced, in Peirce''s use, by other passages of his work in which he uses it producing concrete examples, like this one:

If I may be allowed to use the word "habit," without any implication as to the time or manner in which it took birth, so as to be equivalent to the corrected phrase "habit or disposition," that is, as some general principle working in a man''s nature to determine how he will act, then an instinct, in the proper sense of the word, is an inherited habit, or in more accurate language, an inherited disposition5.

It is evident that here Peirce by "equivalent" means "corresponding". When, by contrast, he uses the same word in a strict, mathematical sense, one perceives the difference, like in this case:

It is very convenient to express the negative of a predicate by simply attaching a non to it. If we adopt that plan, non-non-marries must be considered as equivalent to marries. It so happens that both in Latin and in English this convention agrees with the usage of the language. There is probably but a small minority of languages of the globe in which this very artificial rule prevails. Of two contradictory propositions each is said to result from the negation of the other6.

The argument is here more logical than linguistic, insomuch as Peirce specifies that it is a "very artificial" rule evidently when compared, for example, to the rules usually valid in natural languages. To prove that hypothesis, one could express the notion even using a mathematical formula:

(non-non-marries) = (marries)

When, on the contrary, he doesn''t mean to refer to a logical-mathematical equivalence, Peirce specifies that, like in this instance:

The phrase "light of reason," or its near equivalent, may probably be found in every literature. The "old philosopher" of China, Lao-Tze, who lived in the sixth century B. C. says for example, "Whoso useth reason''s light, and turneth back, and goeth home to its enlightenment, surrendereth not his person to perdition. This is called practising the eternal"7.

A calm analysis of Peirce''s logical thought allows us to gradually reconstruct the sense of the notion of "equivalence", which we will continue in the next unit.


Bibliographical references

CATFORD J. C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation, London, Oxford University Press, 1965.

MARÍAS J. Negra espalda del tiempo, Punto de lectura, 2000 (original edition 1998), ISBN 84-663-0007-7.

MARÍAS J. Dark Back of Time, New York, New Directions, 2001 (translated by Esther Allen), ISBN 0-8112-1466-4.

PEIRCE C. S. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, v. 1-6 edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, v. 7-8 edited by Arthur W. Burks, Cambridge (Massachusetts), Harvard University Press, 1931-1935, 1958.

1 Marías 2000, p. 32.
2 Marías 2001, p. 27.
3 Catford, p. 20.
4 Peirce, 2, p. 228.
5 Peirce 2, p. 170.
6 Peirce, v. 2, p. 379.
7 Peirce, v. 2, p. 24.