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20 - Equivalence - third part

«[...] las palabras que nos sustituyen y a veces alguien recuerda o transmite, no siempre confesando su procedencia1».

"[...] the words that replace us and that someone occasionally remembers or passes on, not always confessing to their provenance [...]"2.

In the previous two units, we saw what can be some meanings or applications of the notion of "equivalence" in Peircean semiotics. We got a very fortuitous and relative notion. But, as far as translation is concerned, the main researcher that historically dedicated himself to the question of equivalence is J. C. Catford that in 1965 published the classic A linguistic theory of translation. An essay in applied linguistics, to which reference was made by other researchers for a long while after. This text is where translations studies are identified as (that, as is evident from the following quotation, was not yet specifically so named) a branch of comparative linguistics:

The theory of translation is concerned with a certain type of relation between languages and is consequently a branch of Comparative Linguistics3.

The aspect that we now call "chronotopical" in translation is destroyed at its basis, because the spacetime coordinates are eliminated a priori from the scope of research:

From the point of view of translation theory the distinction between synchronic and diachronic comparison is irrelevant. Translation equivalences can be set up, and translations performed, between any pair of languages or dialects-''related'', or ''unrelated'' and with any kind of spatial, temporal, social or other relationship between them4.

The notion of "equivalence" is fundamental for translation, because it is part of its own definition:

Translation may be defined as follows: the replacement of textual material in one language (SL) by equivalent textual material in another language (TL)5.

And in my opinion the main problem of the whole Catford theory is his following of the notion of equivalence in order to base any other upon it. People following this course have already time and again come across the notion of "total translation" as part of Peeter Torop''s theory, but until this point I have never mentioned the prehistory of the "total translation" locution, a central part of this very essay by Catford, pre-dating Torop by thirty tears. Here the notion of "total translation" is counterbalanced by the notion of restricted translation, which is the substitution of textual material of the TL only at one level, i.e. only at graphological or phonological level. By contrast, the definition of total translation is:

replacement of SL grammar and lexis by equivalent TL grammar and lexis with consequential replacement of SL phonology/graphology by (non-equivalent) TL phonology/graphology6.

The recent notion of "total translation", as it is evident, does not accept much of Catford''s definition. The notion of "totality" is accepted mostly, applied however to textual components completely different in the semiotic context.
  The aim of Catford''s total translation is finding "textual equivalents" and their substitution. Here is the definition that is given:

A textual equivalent is any TL text or portion of text which is observed on a particular occasion, by methods described below, to be the equivalent of a given SL text or portion of text7.

Something is therefore equivalent to something else - even in this view - only in a specific occasion, i.e. it is a contingent, not absolute, equivalence. This feature undermines the notion of equivalence as (mathematical) parity of value. Maybe it is not worthwhile investing too much energy in discussing the term "equivalent" more than Catford himself does. He starts from an absolute term and the, step by step, empties it of all its features until just the shell is left. We have arrived at the point where it is too difficult to decide what an equivalent is; he proposes, therefore, to go on translating in order to see 2hat happens. The equivalent is then defined as the portion of text changing when a portion of prototext changes:

A textual translation equivalent is thus: that portion of a TL text which is changed when and only when a given portion of the SL text is changed8.

This empirical strategy is not altogether successful, however, because there is the problem of the mismatching grammar categories (parts of speech) between different languages, in the given case Russian, French and English. Comparing the English, French, and Russian sentence:

My father was a doctor
Mon père était   docteur
u menja Otec byl   doktor

the easily visible problem that, any way you decide to define "equivalent", the English "a" has no equivalents in the other two languages. Catford allows for the problem but does not let it go, rather he shifts the argument to another level:

In the Russian text, therefore, there is no translation equivalent of the Russian indefinite article. We say, then, that the Russian equivalent of a in this text is nil. Equivalence, in this example, can be established only at a higher rank, namely the group9.

On a scientific plane, this should lead to the creation of a different model, not based on the word as minimal translation unit, but on longer text fragments. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The "a doctor" case is just left unresolved.
  Another problem faced by the equivalence theory is the one of the semantic field of a word. There are no two identical semantic fields, not only between two languages compared, but not even in the same language. Catford knows that, and consequently tells us:

Frequently occurring SL items commonly have more than one TL equivalent in the course of a long text10.

It is advisable to let slide the contradiction implied in the sentence "more than one equivalent". Here Catford implicitly reveals that what lends strength to his theory is the possibility of the creation of translating machines. Catford is not dealing with translation, but with machine translation, even though he never tells us so explicitly. The many hints dispersed in his text, however, make us realize that perfectly well. Facing the polysemy, and difference of semantic field, problems, Catford reacts with statistics, the utility of which he neglects to explain:

by dividing the number of occurrences of each particular equivalent by the total number of occurrences of the SL item we obtain the equivalence-probability of each particular equivalence11.

Possessing this precious datum, equivalence-probabilities, we now know something very, very important. Namely, that when in a translation we meet the word X, in 60% of the cases we translate it with the word Y. Provided the type of text does not vary. Provided the subject does not vary. Provided the author does not vary. Provided the historical time does not vary. Provided the register does not vary. Provided the collocation does not vary.
  Will be able our hero to accomplish his task? We shall see in the next unit (continued).


Bibliographical references

CATFORD J. C. A Linguistic Theory of Translation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1965. ISBN 0-19-437018-6

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.

1 Marías 2000, p. 13.
2 Marías 2001, p. 10.
3 Catford 1965, p. 20.
4 Catford 1965, p. 20.
5 Catford 1965, p. 20.
6 Catford 1965, p. 22.
7 Catford 1965, p. 27.
8 Catford 1965, p. 28.
9 Catford 1965, p. 29.
10 Catford 1965, p. 30.
11 Catford 1965, p. 30.