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24 - Equivalence in the Soviet School: Komissarov

«Lo extraordinario del ejemplar es que en la portadilla está firmado por el propio Graham, quien además ha escrito a mano: 'Camaradas guardad vuestras energías UTILIZAD EL ASCENSOR', y más abajo: 'Aviso: el ascensor está averiado'»1.

"The extraordinary thing about my copy is that the title page is signed by Graham himself, who, in addition, has written, 'Comrades conserve your energy USE THE LIFT,' and, lower down, 'Notice: The Lift is Out of Order'"3.

In the previous units, we have examined the notion of equivalence as seen by Peirce, Catford, Eco. We sprang from one view to the other, from pure Peircean semiotics, to Catford's, I dare say, nearly computational linguistics, to the semiotician that in the mean time is a translated novelist and participates, in a way, to the others' translation choices on his texts. Now I wish, given there is a need to do so, to further increase the sense of unease of people trying to define within themselves "equivalence" and the sense of amusement of people who have renounced use of "equivalence" as a parameter for their own translation view. That's why I examine the notion of "equivalence" of one of the most important translation schools in the world (if anything, for its historical tradition and number of publications), the Russian-Soviet school.

The text examined is Theory of translation (linguistic aspects) by Vilén Naùmovich Komissàrov, published in 1990 and therefore comparatively recent (keep in mind that Fyodorov's Introduction to the translation theory a classic book of translation studies ante litteram, was published in 1953, the year in which Stalin died: In the USSR perevodovédenie [literally: "knowledge about translation", of which "traductologie" is therefore a calque] was an early one). Here two chapters are devoted to equivalence, subdivided in this way: equivalence of the functional content (third chapter) and equivalence of the semantics of the lexical units (fourth chapter). Let us see them, with examples.

We should distinguish "potential reachable equivalence", by which we mean the maximum level of common contents of two eterolingual texts through knowledge of the differences between the languages in which the two texts are coded, and "translational equivalence", the actual closeness of sense of the texts in the original and translation, achieved by the translator in the translation process (1990: 51).

That is, we must distinguish the maximum potential from what a concrete metatext can actually reach, because every actualized version has a different way to be, so to speak, 'equivalent' and a different degree of 'equivalence'. (From that follows, in my opinion, the impossibility to define it 'equivalence', but I don't want to create too much interference in the exposition of Komissàrov's view.)

Since difference between two linguistic codes limits the possibility to completely preserve the original's content,

equivalence can be based on the preservation (and, correspondingly, loss) of different elements of the sense of the original. Depending on the portion of contents transmitted in the translation in order to assure its equivalence, many levels (types) of equivalence are discernable. At each level of equivalence a translation can assure some degree of interlingual communication (51).

From this general premise one can already guess what Komissàrov's terms of 'equivalence' might be:

  1. Only one part of the contents is preserved (and it is the only one claiming a correspondence to the original);
  2. 2. the different versions are distinguished by the portion of contents preserved (hence they have different and complementary types of correspondence):
  3. 3. what is preserved is juxtaposed to what is lost, because residue or loss are constant features of translation (therefore, actually, there is no equivalent version);
  4. 4. The part to be preserved is rationally chosen in function of the translator's considerations: it is something very similar to the choice of the dominant (the translator, knowing that it isn't possible to pursue any real equivalence, opts for the least depriving and onerous loss).

In pragmatic communication, every text has a fixed aim. One of Komissàrov's models of 'equivalence' consists in selecting as dominant the aim of communication.

The equivalence in the translations of the first type consists of preserving only the part of the original's content constituting the aim of the communication (52).

Here are some examples:

1. Maybe there is some chemistry between us that doesn't mix.

Character clashes are frequent.

2. That's a pretty thing to say.

You should be ashamed!

3. Those evening bells, those evening bells, how many a tale their music tells.

Din don, din don, so many stories from that sound!

In the three examples there is a different, implicit, not directly denotative meaning that is taken as an absolute dominant to realize Komissàrov's pragmatic equivalence. What is left out concerns: lexicon, syntax, paraphrase links, and even actual outer references (chemistry, beautiful things, evening etc.) This strategy can be used - Komissàrov argues - when strategies that are more conservative are unfeasible. The example of the double version of an English proverb is made: the first version preserves lexicon and structure, the second communicative function:

PT A rolling stone gathers no moss

MT1 On a stone that rolls there is no moss formation

MT2 People who never stand still do not do anything good3.

There is, then, a second type of 'equivalence', aiming not only at a shared communicative effort, but also reflecting the same extralingual situation. The difference between identification of the situation and the means for describing it reflects the peculiarity of the relations between language, thought and described reality (sign, interpretant, object). Even in this second type of 'equivalence', speech acts are not equivalent at all, but there is an extralingual experience of communicating people that makes possible reciprocal understanding.

The second type of equivalence is represented by translations whose proximity to the sense in the original is not based, not even in this case, on the shared meanings of the linguistic means employed (57).

Some examples follow:

1. He answered the telephone

He lifted the receiver.

2. You are not fit to be in a boat.

You are not to be allowed to get on a boat.

3. You see one bear, you have seen them all.

All bears look like one another.

Structure and syntax do not always resemble one another, but, in Komissàrov's view, here there is an increased equivalence when compared to the first type. However, typically lexicon and syntax are not comparable, there is not paraphrastic translation, the communicative function is preserved and the situation referred to is the same.

In some cases the situation, however, must be varied to allow a non-aberrant communication, due to cultural translation problems, because

different situations can acquire a shared meaning within a given community's culture, differing from the meaning that such situations have for member of different linguistic communities (60).

For example, the fact the body language is different in all cultures is well known. In many peoples, lifting and lowering one's head many times means assertion, while in Sicily, for example, it means negation. This has consequences in the gestures of characters.

The third type of equivalence can be characterized by the examples:

1. Scrubbing makes me bad-tempered

My mood grows bad due to floor washing.

2. London saw a cold winter last year.

Last year winter in London was cold.

3. That will not be good for you.

This business might end badly for you.

In this third type, there is no lexical or syntactic parallelism, the two structures are not amenable to a simple syntactic transformation, communication aim and situation are unvaried and situation are preserved, while general concepts through which the description of the original's situation is realized are preserved, i.e. the "means of description of the situation" is preserved (62).


Bibliographical references

KOMISSAROV V. N. Teorija perevoda (lingvisticheskie aspekty), Moskvà, Vysshaya shkola, 1990, ISBN 5-06-001057-0.

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. 260.
2 Marías 2001, p. 211.
3 This is Komissàrov's interpretation. But usually the sense I had never heard this interpretation - When this is used it was always in the context that you need to keep moving since moss breaks down the structures it grows upon and was, therefore, undesirable. If you kept busy, you would not break down, neither materially nor physically.