Logos Multilingual Portal

8 - From private language to communication

«La sensación de que los libros me buscan no ha dejado de acompañarme, y todo lo que ha pasado a la vida [...] ha acabado por tener también materialización en esa forma, en forma de libro, o de documento, o de foto, o de carta, o de título»1.

"The feeling that books seek me out has stayed with me, and all that has emerged into real life [...] has finally materialized in that form, as well in the form of a book, a document, a photo, a letter, a title "2.

Language, in Wittgenstein''s opinion, is a labyrinth of paths. If someone approaches language from one direction, he knows his way about, but if he approaches it from another direction, he''s not so sure of his next step, he can get himself lost. This is the reason why it is so difficult to speak metalinguistically. Using language both as a means of expression and as a subject of discussion, one risks completely loosing his orientation. Discussions made within this course run the same risk: this is, in a way, "metatranslational" argument, because it has translation as its subject but it is a translation in its own rights. Their prototext consists, in part, of bibliographical references and, in part, of the author''s communicative intentions.
  Even in this act, the private view of notions, ideas, and readings - valid as private as long as it remains in the writer''s mind - must succeed in translating itself into communication, i.e. into a language understandable in the outside world.

The common behaviour of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language3.

Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, we could say reciprocally that the common behavior of the others surrounding us is the system of reference by means of which we understand whether the way we translate our private language into communication is comprehensible.
  However, to understand how translation of our experience into words occurs, it can be useful to address one of our most subjective experiences: pain perception. Wittgenstein interrogates himself about the possibility of conceiving a language through which one expresses her personal inner experiences in a way that only she is able to understand the form of expression.

But could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences-his feelings, moods, and the rest-for his private use? [...] The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language4.

That is what happens in inner language, that naturally is neither written nor spoken. That is what happens when we feel pain, and we don''t feel the need to (or cannot) communicate it to anyone. Because, as the German philosopher argues, even when we describe our pain to someone, the description is a product of education: adults "teach the child new pain-behaviour»5.
  But focusing, as does Wittgenstein, on the subjectivity of private communication, and even wondering if the rules for private language are not mere impressions of rules, does not have immediate useful applications to the practice of translation. However, it is very interesting to keep in mind that, if every sign is linked to a private experience, it is equally linked to the common behaviour of mankind: it is, in some aspects, a formulation recalling Peirce''s triad sign-interpretant-object: where by "interpretant" he means private experience, and by "object" the common behaviour of mankind.
  George Steiner realizes the danger implied in following Wittgenstein''s logic to its fullest regarding its application to practical translation, or translational praxis, as Steiner defines it:

After Babel tries to show that there cannot, in any strict or responsible sense, be any such ''theory'' [of translation]. The cerebral proceedings which would have to underlie and explain it are simply inaccessible. At best, we have narratives of translational praxis6.

Steiner, however, chooses a difficult path halfway between Chomsky''s linguistic universals and Wittgenstein''s linguistic individualism. Although he agrees with the subjective character of expression, he realizes that there is a physiological range of expressive potential between "maniacal solipsism and human generality"7, a range within which it is possible to communicate to the external world a necessary or useful portion of private language. It is possible to, however rudimentally, express oneself, even if the relations between subjective interpretant and sign and object are still basically different:

No two human beings share an identical associative context. Because such a context is made up of the totality of an individual existence, because it comprehends not only the sum of personal memory and experience but also the reservoir of the particular subconscious, it will differ from person to person. There are no facsimiles of sensibility, no twin psyches. All speech forms and notations, therefore, entail a latent or realized element of individual specificity. They are in part an idiolect8.

Steiner''s multi-disciplinary attitude seems the most productive, and indispensable to acknowledge the contributions to translation science from the philosophy of language, linguistics, semiotics and psychology.


Bibliographical references

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.

STEINER G. After Babel. Aspects of Language and Translation, 3rd edition, Oxford-New York, Oxford University Press, 1998 (1975), ISBN 0-19-288093-4.

WITTGENSTEIN L. Philosophische Untersuchungen Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Malden (Massachusetts), Blackwell, 1997, ISBN 0-631-20569-1.

1 Marías 2000, p. 259.
2 Marías 2001, p. 208.
3 «Die gemeinsame menschliche Handlungsweise ist das Bezugssystem, mittels welches wir uns eine fremde Sprache deuten». Wittgenstein 1997 (1953), p. 82.
4 «Wäre aber auch eine Sprache denkbar, in der Einer seine inneren Erlebnisse - seine Gefühle, Stimmungen, etc. - für den eigenen Gebrauch aufschreiben, oder aussprechen könnte? [...] Die Wörter dieser Sprache sollen sich auf das beziehen, wovon nur der Sprechende wissen kann; auf seine unmittelbaren, privaten, Empfindungen. Ein Anderer kann diese Sprache also nicht verstehen». Wittgenstein 1997 (1953), p. 88-89.
5 «lehren das Kind ein neues Schmerzbenehmen». Wittgenstein 1997 (1953), p. 89.
6 Steiner 1998, p. viii.
7 Steiner 1998, p. 180.
8 Steiner 1998, p. 178-179.