Logos Multilingual Portal

2 - Comparing the expressive potential

"Every detail of them is present to my mind, but not in the language I heard them in. I heard them in Bulgarian, but I know them in German"1

Jiří Levý illustrates in a very clever and understandable way what happens in the decoding/recoding process in terms of expressive potential of each language/culture.

In previous parts of this course we discussed how difficult it is to decide about the preeminence of language over culture or, vice versa: to determine which of the two elements is in function in respect to the other one. Some theories, especially in the past, tended to see language as a mere expressive instrument of a culture that has been already formed autonomously and that needs language just to find a verbal "translation".

A somewhat opposite school of thought attributes absolute preeminence of language over culture. According to this current, even thought is linguistic, even intra-individual reflections are uniquely possible thanks to the natural code. In this view, there is no mental code, and extralingual culture is a mere extension of the linguistic one, generated by a linguistic structure. A well-known example of this current is Schleiermacher:

Every human being is, on one hand, under the power of the language he speaks; he and all his thought is a product of it. He cannot, with complete certainty, think nothing that is outside the limits of language. The form of his concepts, the way and the means to connect them are delineated for him by the language in which he was born and educated; intellect and imagination are linked to it2.

Other theorists, the first of them, Whorf, promote a mutual influence of language and culture. The presence of definite linguistic categories, in this view that I share, gives life to some thought modes, while, on the other hand, some cultural views even produce, in the long run, linguistic forms.

Any way you prefer to look at it, a point on which all researchers agree is that stylistic expressivity of each language differs from that of the others. The prototext originates spontaneously from the expressive potentialities of an author inserted in a linguistic and cultural context, while the metatext originates artificially as a result of expressive potentialities of the protoculture adapted to a different linguistic and cultural context.

For this reason, Levý holds that a comparative stylistics of each pair of languages and cultures is indispensable to translators. Even when taking for granted that any given language in its entirety can express more or less the same volume of information as the next, the fact remains that the same concept may be expressed directly in one language while only indirectly in another. A concept that corresponds to a lexical unit, to a word in one culture, in another can require a much longer elucidation, maybe a sentence or more.

The comparative stylistics that Levý proposes to translators foresees the comparison of just two languages/cultures at any one time. For each pair of languages/cultures one can delineate three segments:

A. what informative means of the two languages can be considered approximatively reciprocal translatants; B: what informative means present in the original’s language are absent in the language of the translation; C: what informative means missing in the original’s language are present in the language of the translation3;

While the problem of the missing linguistic means in the receiving language which are present in the prototext language were dealt with by other researchers too, it is very important that Levý gives so much attention to the C segment, concerning the expressive potential of the receiving language that is not stimulated by corresponding stylemes of the original. Such a situation can be graphically expressed in this way:


spectrum of expressive potential

type of relation between protoculture and metaculture

potential present in the protoculture and absent in the metaculture

potential present in both cultures

potential present in the metaculture and absent in the protoculture

function of the segment from a translational point of view

compensatory elements


hidden possibilities

language/culture of the original






language/culture of the translation


In this table, which is a free reinterpretation of the table in Levý 1974: 81, gray spaces indicate the presence of linguistic-expressive potential, while red spaces indicate the absence of such potential.

Usually the discussion on the translation loss is limited to the possibilities contemplated in the B and A columns. Taking a difference of semantic field between two words for granted in any case, as in the A segment, one usually searches for translatants that, in a given context and co-text, satisfy at least a minimum of the translatability criteria, and such translatants are found in the receiving text language.

When, on the contrary, the translatant is missing in the metatext language (B segment column), one falls back on compensatory elements (for example circumlocution or periphrases, or even metatextual elements like footnotes).

What is most innovative in Levý’s theory concerns the column corresponding to the C segment, where the expressive potential of the receiving language is so great that, seeing the lack in the source language, are not spontaneously considered by the translator. Here is the situation as described by Levý:

The average translator tries under the pressure of the original fully valid substitutes for the semantic units of the original. Doing so, however, in her intuitional searches she can always unwillingly have to deal with one of two following related phenomena:

1) if she doesn’t use the specific means of her own language, for which the original doesn’t give any base, the expressive spectrum of the translation will be poorer than the corresponding spectrum in the original work written in the mother tongue (only type A instead of types A + C);

2) in the original there is a group of latent units of a semantic or stylistic nature that the author could not actualize because of the conditions of his language, that the translator can discover and express thanks to her own, in this case, wider information possibilities4.

The translator is usually reliant on the expressive potential of her own language only when she receives a stimulus from the prototext in that direction. At first the prototext does not give any suggestion outside the A+C framework, consequently the language of the translator limiting herself to such a mechanism misses the original’s richness (owing to the interlingual transfer and the losses it encompasses), but also misses the richness of a text autonomously originated in the metatext language. Not being thought in the metatext language, it tends to exploit a very reduced expressive potential.

Levý, on the contrary, feels that the translator should possibly tend towards extending the expressive potential from the A+C segments to the A+B+C segments, also mobilizing the reserves of her tongue beyond the boundaries of experience of the original literature. For this reason, many writers and scholars in the course of history, especially since the Romantic era, have affirmed that translation is a very important means to enlarge the expressive potential of a language. Schleiermacher feels too that:

In the same way as our territory probably became richer and more fertile, and our climate more amiable and gentle after so many transplantations of foreign plants, so we feel that our language, that we less practice owing to our Northern lethargy, can only blossom and develop its perfect power thanks to the most varied contacts with what is foreign5.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

LEVÝ JIRÍ, Umení překladu, Praha, Ceskoslovenský spisovatel, 1963. Russian translation by Vladìmir Rossel´s, Iskusstvo perevoda, Moskvà, Progress, 1974.

SCHLEIERMACHER F. Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens, 1813.

1 Canetti 1999: 12.
2 Schleiermacher 1813.
3 Levý 1974: 81.
4 Levý 1974: 82.
5 Schleiermacher 1813.