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3. National languages as visions of the world: the theories of psycholinguistics



d) Bateson's "every schoolboy knows"

In his Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson summarizes every error of interpretation in a series of automatic and erroneous presuppositions:


  1. Science never proves anything
  2. Translation in Translatology: given the recurrence of a term in an author's work, it does not mean necessarily that the sign always symbolizes the same concept (e.g. the adjective 'proud', usually portraying 'loftiness' in Shakespeare, also appears in parts of the Midsummer Night's Dream when Bottom is on stage, and generally in every parody of the tragic hero).

  3. The map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named
  4. Translation: in many canonical areas of Literature, an image is forced into expressing the opposite to the meaning attributed by cultural conventions (e.g. in Nietzsche, the much-repeated Will to Power is Wille zurt Macht, the Will that aspires inextinguishably to Power, whilst Superman is Ubermensch, "Overman", something that has no longer anything to do with man).

  5. There is no objective experience
  6. Translation: here we enter the realms of mysticism, the ineffability of the translating process. A good example would be the tale by Borges entitled Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, which represents the aleph, the essential beginning, for every translator. We shall return to this soon.

  7. The processes of image formation are unconscious
  8. Translation: give preference to the visual over the conceptual. Without appreciating the dramatic effect ¾ the bipartite, polyphonic 'scene' ¾ of the episode in Madame Bovary where Emma is being seduced upstairs in the town hall by a mediocre suitor while down below, during the local fair, the voice of the major announces the prices awarded to the various heads of livestock, the essence will never be captured.

  9. The division of the perceived universe into parts and whole is convenient and may be necessary, but no necessity determines how it shall be done
  10. This is a corollary to item 4.

  11. Divergent sequences are unpredictable
  12. Convergent sequences are predictable
  13. Translation: the most important part of a novel is the part that remains unwritten, but which the translator must be able to perceive, running beneath the narrative. For example, who is Ishmael, the character who introduces us to the story of Moby Dick, and what has brought him so low that he needs to take ship with Captain Ahab ? Probably a murderer, running from the law. If he is, then his inevitable attitude of ethical indifference to the intensity of the unfolding tragedy takes on another significance. Rereading Moby Dick, I'm convinced that he is just that'

  14. "Nothing will come of nothing"
  15. Here we are completely at home, because this is a quotation from King Lear: beware of over-interpretations. The obsession that seeks to make everything clear is the death of poetry. There are passages in the great works of literature which can be 'difficult' even in the original language. Why should they be any easier in the target language ? The translator must not explain the text (more dogma I'm afraid'). If in doubt, stick to the voicings and the punctuation of the original and stand your ground cheerfully with the editor of the publishing house (e.g. with sentences expanded, all Nietzsche is all Kafka, and with elliptic compression, the same is true in reverse. If anyone happens to unearth an Italian translation of these two authors that observes the original geometry of the sentence, please write and tell me).

  16. Number is different from quantity
  17. Quantity does not determine pattern
  18. This is a corollary to item 7.

  19. There are no monotone "values" in biology
  20. Sometimes small is beautiful
  21. Whereas reiteration and symmetry are so beloved of German poetry, with its roots in the Volkeslied, they are insufferable to the Neo-latins, champions of the variatio. In his Alto Rhapsody, Brahms sets to music a fragment of Goethe taken from Harzreise Em Winter, which begins with 'aber', 'but'. Listen to this disturbing masterpiece, and discover what metaphysical depths are laid bare by that 'aber'. No further examples are necessary, but beware of that 'nice style' they taught in school. How well Dostoievsky writes, in Italian translations !

  22. Logic is a poor model of cause and effect
  23. Translation: unlike the reader, the literary translator reads the book through before attempting any interpretation. Consequently, the translation will tend to be coloured right from the start with the overall image of the book formed in the translator's mind. In effect, the translator hates chaos, but when approaching a narrative like Nerval's Aurelia ¾ a series of chinese boxes ¾ this is a prejudice that has catastrophic effects.

  24. Causality does not work backward
  25. Ah! A nice corollary to item 13. This could be a third dogma'

  26. Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction
  27. The entire second part of the course will be dedicated to this question.

  28. "Stability" and "change" describe parts of our descriptions

Translation: who knows from what mountain Zarathustra comes down when, at the beginning of the nietzschean 'poem', he decides to end his exile. Certainly, not the mountain of the reader, neither that of the translator. The scene in the mind's eye of the translator combines with that envisaged by the author, providing a filter for the scene perceived ultimately by the reader, and it is from this that aesthetic enjoyment of the work is derived.

Undoubtedly, it is now time for us translatologists to come down from the mountain of definitions and enter the arena of interpretation techniques and intertextuality'