Logos Multilingual Portal

7 - Loss: temporal factors

"It is not like the literary translation of a book from one language to another, it is a translation that happened of its own accord in my unconscious, and since I ordinarily avoid this word like the plague, a word that has become meaningless from overuse, I apologize for employing it in this one and only case"1.

Any form of communication – and therefore translation – is subject to the semiotic law of loss. Nida states: "If one is to insist that translation must involve no loss of information whatsoever, then obviously not only translating but all communication is impossible" (Nida 1959: 13)

Shannon and Weaver, in 1949, elaborated a mathematic model of communication, that eventually was used and incorporated by semiotic research, like for example in the famous 1960 essay by Jakobson entitled Linguistics and poetics, the one in which he distinguishes the six components of communication



CONTEXT (referential function)


ADDRESSER (emotive function)

MESSAGE (poetic function)

ADDRESSEE (conative function)


CONTACT (phatic function)


CODE (metalingual function)


The six components of communication and the six functions (Jakobson 1960: 66-71).

and the six related functions. Jakobson’s accomplishment is the re-elaboration of a simpler model, considering, under the name of "signal", both the message and the code. In the following figure, you can see how that model works:

The little vertical snake rising in the center is what is called "noise". It is called this because the context in which this model of communication was originally conceptualized concerns audio communication, but the notion is valid for any kind of communication. In other types of communication, other than acoustic, speaking of "noise" is metaphoric, and refers to any hindrance or obstacle one can encounter while transferring a message from the sender’s (addresser’s) mind to the receiver’s (addressee’s) mind.

Where can the "noise" be and on which phases of the communicative processes does it impact? The noise can be in the sender or in the receiver (i.e. can consist of a communicative deficiency in either of the two subjects). It can be in the message, that can be drafted without preoccupation to fulfill a communication function, and, therefore, be received in a way differing from the intentions of the sender. And it can be in the code: every code has a standard version; if you deviate too much from it, you run the risk of producing a text that is easily misunderstood.

But one of the factors the question of the translation residue influences most is the context. This happens owing to an intuitable reason: in translation, the context changes, and this holds true in almost all cases. The famous Slovak translation researcher Anton Popovič helps us elaborate some points regarding the residue, starting from the time factor. The time factor concerns, of course, translators that do not translate contemporary works, because, otherwise, the distance over time to the prototext would be equal to zero.

In translating a text belonging to the past, the translator "usually actualizes it making it accessible to her contemporaries. Historicizing is justified in the case in which the author chooses to use it; in the other cases, it represents an expressive device of the translator" (Popovič 1975: 122).

The two most popular orientations can be schematized in this way:

a conservative or historicizing orientation (retentive translation);

a modernizing orientation (re-creative translation).

The two orientations are matched by a different focus held by the translator. In the former case, the translator is focused on the prototext’s author, while in the latter she is primarily focused on the needs of the model reader of the metatext.

Among the forms of modernization, Popovič (like Holmes) distinguishes two types:

"traditional" modernization, i.e. relative modernization, in which the translator modifies lexicon and syntax to make them more easily read by the contemporary reader, but the verse form, for example, is presented the same way as in the original;

radical modernization, in which theme and socio-cultural aspects of the text are also modified, realia included; a horse, for example, may become a motorcycle.

The time factor is not, as appears at first sight, the same for all the aspects of all cultures. In order to understand it better, one can use the notion of "cultural time".

In every culture a phenomenon, a literary current, a fashion, the sensitivity toward a problem each have their own maturation times. Industrialization, for example, in the British Empire occurred in the second half of the 18th century, while in other European countries like Russia and Italy it occurred mainly at the beginning of the twentieth. That implied – and in translation may still imply – varying stages of maturation in cultures as far as cultural aspects connected to economic development are concerned.

For example, trade unionism and the working class’s claims, and more generally working class conditions as seen in a novel like Mary Barton written in 1848 by Elizabeth Gaskell do not match events in almost any other world culture of the same period. And it may happen that when in one country the problem of safety regulations in factories is part of current events, in another country, recently industrialized, the prevailing mentality there tends to focus on the privilege of having paid employment more than on its negative effects. If, therefore, a novel like Gaskell’s were translated to another culture in that same 1848, there would have been serious problems of understanding due to the differing cultural time of the two.

Popovič postulates three possibilities:

  1. the cultural time of original and translation coincide:
  2. ______________----------------___________


  3. the cultural time of the translation is tardy as confronted to the cultural time of the original:
  4.      ______________----------------___________


    as in the case of Italian or Russian Romanticism as compared to the English Romanticism;

  5. the cultural time of the original is completely missing in the translation culture:



as can happen in the case in which a literary genre does not exist at all in the metaculture:

In the next unit we will analyze more semiotic aspects of the translation process, concerning the translations ageing too, which, as popular sense suggests, is much faster than the original ageing.


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.

JAKOBSON R. Linguistics and poetics, in Language in Literature, ed by Krystyna Pomorska, Harvard, Belknap-Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 62-94.

NIDA, E. Bible translating, in Brower, R.A. ed., On translation, Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 11-31.)

POPOVIČ A. Teória umeleckého prekladu, Tatran, 1975. Russian translation by I. A. Bernštejn e I. S. Černjavskaja, edited by N. A. Kondrašov, Problemy hudožestvennogo perevoda, Moskvà, Vysšaja škola, 1980.

1 Canetti 1999: 13.