Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who never had a permanent
position at any university, however devoted his entire life to
research and wrote thousands of pages, giving birth to one of the
two great currents of semiotics. Saussure originated the other,
often referred to as Structuralism. Peirce's works were published
mostly after his death. This is one of the reasons why, nearly a
century after, his thought has still, in part, to be explored.
The Austrian researcher Dinda Gorlée has devoted much
work to the potential applications of Peirce's thought to
translation studies. She has analyzed translation (translatability)
from the point of view of Peircean semiotics. She also introduced
the term semiotranslation into the scientific language.
In Peirce's opinion, a sign, or representamen, is
something that stands for something else in some aspects or capacity
and that addresses someone, i.e. creates in the mind of that person
an equivalent sign or a more developed sign
In other words, there is a triad sign-object-interpretant, where
"interpretant" stands for the mental image that a sign produces
If, for example, I read the word "cat", this word
evokes a reaction in my mind, an image, a meaning, a psychic sign,
which in my mind describes, in nonverbal language, my personal,
mental (and partially unconscious) notion of "cat". This psychic
sign is individual, subjective, and different for each of us and
has, on one hand, a relation to the verbal sign "cat" (the word), on
the other hand, a relation to the 'object' cat (the animal).
As we have said in the units on the translation as a
mental process, in translation there is no direct link between a
prototext verbal sign and a metatext verbal sign. Each verbal sign,
and each group of verbal signs, first evokes the subjective psychic
sign in the translator's mind, from which the translator can
project another verbal sign, or group of verbal signs onto the
It should be obvious from that, in the Peircean view,
that each reading is a subjective interpretation, varying in time,
of the text read. Consequently, every translation is a subjective
translation, varying in time, of each translated text.
The translated equivalents (in semiotic terminology, the interpretants) cannot, of course, be more than a guide,
the invention of the translator
The "translatability" notion, in Peircean terms,
sheds a very original light on the subject, particularly because
the sense of the translating act varies in time, space, culture: it
is conditioned by the linguistic, cultural, and historical context
in which it is received.
Original works are, and often remain over time, authentic, autonomous, unique, and hence essentially irreplaceable
entities. A translation, however, lacks the stability of an original work and becomes ossified as a dated text-sign
This is caused not only by the fact that every translation is a
subjective interpretation referring to a definite diachronic
context, but also because all sign systems are bound to pass from a
state of chaos to a state of order, from a state of imagination to a
state of rationality.
Nothing is ever fixed: all sign and sign-systems move from a more chaotic, surprising, paradoxical, etc. state
and go through translation towards a more ordered, predictable, ratuionalized state [...] Meaning as meant by new translations
is destined to remain relative, because the truth can only be reached in the hypothetical long run. New patterns from new
translations and from new translators may arise from seemingly nowhere. Instead of eternity, Peircean translations are provided
After these premises, what remains of the
"translatability" notion? First, it is obvious that everything that,
in a translator, produces an interpretant is translatable. In other
words, any sign is, in some way, translatable. Such translatability,
however, has an ephemeral value, to the point that the very notion
of "translatability" becomes redundant:
It cannot be emphasized enough that translations become obsolete because the general and specific cultural context
(such as the parameters of the communicative task of the translator and the expressive functionality of the text, original as
well as translated) changes continuously, thereby undermining questions such as translatability vs. untranslatability and fidelity
vs. infidelity, and making them wholly redundant
This implies that a translation can never be considered
"finished", is always improvable. It has little sense to speak about
"standard edition" or "authorized version", if not from a merely
commercial point of view: from a semiotic point of view a version,
in itself, is transitory, and the locution "standard version" is an
Interlingual translation is a dynamic comparison of
two cultures that eventually emphasizes and complicates the
sometimes irreconcilable differences between the two languages and
the two cultures
Translatability is another way to define the parameter
of the difference between two cultures in a given time and from a
given point of view.
In the next unit, we will peek at the way the
translatability problem is faced and studied by the Estonian scholar
GORLÉE D. L. Semiotics and the Problem of Translation with Special Reference to the Semiotic of Charles S. Peirce.
Alblasserdam, Offsetdrukkerij Kanters, 1993.
PEIRCE C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce,
8 vol., Cambridge (MA), Belknap Press, 1931-1966.
1 Peirce, 2, p. 228.
2 Gorlée 2000, p. 125.
3 Gorlée 2000, p. 127.
4 Gorlée 2000, p. 126.
5 Gorlée 2000, p. 127.
6 Gorlée 2000, p. 128.
7 Gorlée 2000, p. 133.