Logos Multilingual Portal

23 - Equivalence from the author's point of view - part two

«[...] los elementos de este relato que empiezo ahora son del todo azarosos y caprichosos, meramente episódicos -impertinentes todos según la parvularia fórmula crítica, o ninguno necesitaría al otro [...]».

"[...] the elements of the story I am now embarking upon are entirely capricious, determined by chance, merely episodic and cumulative-all of them irrelevant by the elementary rule of criticism, non of them requiring any of the others [...]".

We concluded the previous unit with Eco's assertion that complete synonyms do not exist. That's why, Eco argues, one could look for a phrasal synonymy where lexical synonymy seems not feasible. There would remain, however, the problem of controlling such supposed synonymy between sentences. Walter Benjamin, as we saw, has a mystical view of translation and language, and postulates the existence of a reine Sprache, a pure language toward which all translations tend, that draw all people nearer to God. If such a pure language existed, one could translate two utterances that are supposed to be synonymical into a third language, the pure language, in order to control their identity.

One needs, however, a mode of comparison appropriate to people not blessed, like Benjamin, with the gift of faith in a divine language. If two utterances in two different languages must be equal, this means that they can be disassembled into units and described in a third language, a metalanguage.

This is precisely what many machine-translation scholars are postulating. There must be a tertium comparationis that allows the passage of an expression from language A to language B by ensuring that both are equivalent to an expression in metalanguage C.

In order to compare two utterances, there seems to be no other method than the one of the metalanguage describing them. There are many theories of translation criticism based on the comparison of prototext and metatext, that consequently must execute a comparison between the two necessarily based on the description of their characteristics. But what is surprising in Eco's argument is that such a metalanguage is identified - and more importantly, in an altogether automatic and oblivious way - with mental language:

This mental language, made up of pure propositions, is currently called Mentalese.

The point is not Eco's conviction that metalanguages are "equivalent" to mental representations; it is just an efficient way to carry out the progressive demolition of the equivalence postulate. It is used Jakobson's example, the one of the electoral slogan "I like Ike", where a translation into an hypothetically equivalent utterance, "I appreciate Eisenhower", hardly would have lead to the election of that president.

There is, moreover, a theoretical objection concerning not only sentences like "I like Ike", characterized by a dominant on the plane of paronomasia, of sound more than sense, but also concerning simple denotative utterances. It is the classical Third Man objection:

If, in order to translate a text α, expressed in a language A, into a text β, expressed in a language B (and to say that β is a correct translation of α, and is similar in meaning to α), one must pass through the metalanguage X, then one is obliged first of all to decide in which way α and β are similar in meaning to a text γ in X and, to decide this, one requires a new metalanguage Y, and so on ad infinitum.

The logical objection can also be expressed in this way: if, in order to state that two utterances are similar or even equivalent I use a language descriptive of the language, who can assure me that such a metalanguage satisfactorily describes language? This is where every presupposition about linguistic equivalence falls. People using a strictly denotative analysis can say that "I like Ike" is equivalent to "I appreciate Eisenhower", but then the metalanguage deals just with denotative aspects. From a methodological point of view it is, then, perhaps correct to put aside the equivalence perspective - presupposing in any case the explicit exclusion of instances unforeseen in the consideration of a given type of equivalence, and speak about translation dominants: If the dominant of the utterance is purely denotative, we can say that "I like Ike" is the translation of "I appreciate Eisenhower", but if the dominant is another one, such a correspondence nexus is excluded.

The fact that every language creates a different worldview, as Whorf maintains, plays an important role in the search for (nonexistent) linguistic equivalences when logical equivalences are the real missing element. The mere fact of thinking that two people can understand each other on the basis of linguistic equivalences is like thinking that two people of different cultures can understand each other by gestures when it is obvious that body expression ha nothing spontaneous and is a consequence of cultural habit. Seeing someone blush now stirs tenderness and sympathy, in the 17th Century England was a sign of great shame.

Every culture classifies real experience according to its own fashion. Classification is not carried out like in a yardage shop or in a hardware store, where diameters, kind of material, length, color, composition or weave lead to finding any given item with certainty in its assigned drawer. Every culture has a different chest of drawers, and different parameters as to the differences between the real objects. Divisions within single drawers do not follow the same progression in two cultures, so that the same phenomenon can be put into two very different compartments.

When God decided to put an end to man's vainglory and destroyed Babel's tower, he didn't so much create different languages, as he differentiated man's linguistic drawers and compartments. From that day on we put two equal screws in two different positions in the same drawers, or in two different drawers altogether. To top it all, man thought of intertextual references. "Sleeping" could well be a more or less precise synonym of "lethargic", "dormant", "stable". What is wrong is that "sleeping" is forever linked to "Sleeping beauty", which cannot, in whatever case, be substituted for "Lethargic beauty", "Dormant beauty" or "Stable beauty". What is still worse, the word "sleeping" has this heavy burden of intertextuality even when the sender does not intend it, even malgré lui.

We decide how to translate, not on the basis of the dictionary, but on the basis of the history of two literatures [...] Therefore translating is not only connected with linguistic competence, but with intertextual, psychological, and narrative competence.

According to Quine, based on the analysis made of a sentence, many justifiable translations can be made: that is what Quine calls "indeterminacy of translation":

Just as we meaningfully speak of the truth of a sentence only within the terms of some theory or conceptual scheme [...] so on the whole we may meaningfully speak of interlinguistic synonymy only within the terms of some particular system of analytical hypotheses.

Following suit of this argument, we can say that any utterance can be subject, in the sender's and in the receiver's interpretation, to different contextualizations modifying its sense. While in the "dictionary linguistics" one could think of language as a set of types, types serve just to see the way through a forest of specific, contextualized tokens, the only ones that give us an idea of the sense of a concrete utterance we deal with. As Eco says:

Translations are not about linguistic types but rather about linguistic tokens. Translations do not concern a comparison between two languages but the interpretation of two texts in two different languages.


Bibliographical references

ECO U. Translating and being translated, in Experiences in translation, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8020-3533-7. 3-63.

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. 12.
2 Marías 2001, p. 9.
3 Eco 2001, p. 11.
4 Eco 2001, p. 11.
5 Eco 2001, p. 12.
6 Eco 2001, p. 13.
7 Quine 1960, 2, 16.
8 Eco 2001, p. 14.