7 minute read


The Concept Of Translation And Its Complexity

The network of connotations associated with the term translation leads to notions of transferring, conveying, or moving from one place to another, of linking one word, phrase, or text to another. These connotations are shared among the words for translation in many modern languages: fanyi in Chinese, translation in English, traduction in French, honyaku in Japanese, Übersetzung in German, and so forth. It may therefore appear justified to postulate the following definition: "Translation is a transfer of the message from one language to another." Even before one specifies what sort of transfer this may be, it is hard to refrain from asking about the message. Is not the message in this definition a product or consequence of the transfer called translation rather than an entity that precedes the action of transfer, something that remains invariant in the process of translation? Is the message supposedly transferred in this process determinable in and of itself before it has been operated on? And what is the status of the language from which or into which the message is transferred? Is it justifiable to assume that the source language in which the original text makes sense is different and distinct from the target language into which the translator renders the text as faithfully as possible?

Are these languages countable? In other words, is it possible to isolate and juxtapose them as individual units, such as apples, for example, and unlike water? By what measures is it possible to distinguish one from the other and endow each with a unity? But for the sake of facilitating the representation of translation, however, is it not necessary to posit the organic unity of language rather than see it as a random assemblage of words, phrases, and utterances if one is to speak of translation in accordance with the definition?

Accordingly, the presumed invariance of the message transmitted through translation is confirmed only retroactively, after it has been translated. What kind of definition is it, then, that includes the term in need of explanation in the definition itself? Is it not a circular definition? Similarly, the unity of the source language and of the target language is also a supposition in whose absence the definition would make little sense. What might translation be if it were supposed that a language is not countable or that one language cannot be easily distinguished from another?

It is difficult to evade this problem when attempting to comprehend the terms meaning and language. At the least, it may be said that, logically, translation is not derivative or secondary to meaning or language; it is just as fundamental or foundational in any attempt to elucidate those concepts. Translation suggests contact with the incomprehensible, the unknowable, or the unfamiliar—that is, with the foreign—and there is no awareness of language until the foreign is encountered. The problematic of translation is concerned in the first place with the allocation of the foreign.

If the foreign is unambiguously incomprehensible, unknowable, and unfamiliar, then translation simply cannot be done. If, conversely, the foreign is comprehensible, knowable, and familiar, translation is unnecessary. Thus, the status of the foreign is ambiguous in translation. The foreign is incomprehensible and comprehensible, unknowable and knowable, unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. This foundational ambiguity of translation is derived from the position occupied by the translator. The translator is summoned only when two kinds of audiences are postulated with regard to the source text, one for whom the text is comprehensible at least to some degree, and the other for whom it is incomprehensible. The translator's work consists in dealing with difference between the two audiences. The translator encroaches on both and stands in the midst of this difference. In other words, for the first audience the source language is comprehensible while for the second it is incomprehensible. It is important to note that the term language in this instance is figurative: it need not refer to the natural language of an ethnic or national community—German or Tagalog, for example. It is equally possible to have two kinds of audiences when the source text is a technical document or an avant-garde work of art. In such cases language may well refer to a vocabulary or set of expressions associated with a professional field or discipline—for example, law; it may imply a style of graphic inscription or an unusual setting in which an artwork is displayed. This loose use of the term language invariably renders the task of determining the meaning of the term translation difficult, because all the acts of projecting, exchanging, linking, matching, and mapping could then be considered kinds of translation, even if not a single word is involved. Here the discernability of the linguistic and the nonlinguistic is at stake.

Roman Jakobson's famous taxonomy of translation attempts to restrict the instability inherent in the figurative use of the word language. Jakobson divides translation into three classes: "1) Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language. 2) Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language. 3) Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems" (p. 261). According to the Jakobsonian taxonomy, one who translates "legal language" into common parlance would be performing an intralingual translation, while one who offers a commentary on an obscure artwork would be engaged in an intersemiotic translation. Neither can be said to be a translator strictly speaking. Only someone who translates a text from one language to another would be doing translation proper.

Jakobson's taxonomy neither elucidates nor responds to the supposition concerning the countability and organic unity of the source and target languages. It does not empirically validate the supposition; it merely repeats and confirms it. Nevertheless, it discloses that "translation proper" depends on a supposed discernibility between the interlingual and the intralingual, between a translation from one language to another and a rewording within the same language. It thereby prescribes and demarcates the locus of difference between two presumably ethnic or national language communities by virtue of the fact that Jakobson presupposes that translation proper can take place only between two unequivocally circumscribed languages. It therefore eradicates the various differences within such a linguistic community and locates the foreign exclusively outside the unity of a language.

No doubt this conception of translation is a schematization of the globally shared and abstractly idealized common-sensical vision of the international world as basic units—nations—segmented by national borders into territories. It is not simply Jakobson's idiosyncratic view. In this schematization, "translation proper" not only claims to be a description or representation of what happens in the process of translation; that description also prescribes and directs how to represent and apprehend what one does when one translates. In this respect, "translation proper" is a discursive construct: it is part of what may be called the regime of translation, an institutionalized assemblage of protocols, rules of conduct, canons of accuracy, and ways of viewing. The discursive regime of translation is poietic, or productive, in that it foregrounds what speech acts theorists call the "perlocutionary" effect. Just as a perlocutionary act of persuading might well happen in a speech act of arguing but persuasion does not always result from argument, "translation proper" need not be postulated whenever one acts to translate. Yet, in the regime of translation, it is as if there were a casual relationship between the co-figurative schematization of translation and the process of translation. Collapsing the process of translation onto its co-figurative schematization, the representation of translation repeatedly discerns the domestic language co-figuratively—one unity is figured out, represented, and comprehended as a spatial figure, in contrast to another—as if the two unities were already present in actuality.

As long as one remains captive to the regime of translation, one can construe the ambiguity inherent in the translator's positionality only as the dual position a translator occupies between a native language and a foreign tongue. Hence the presumption persists that one either speaks one's mother tongue or a foreigner's. The translator's task would be to discern the differences between the two languages. And the difference one deals with in translation is always determined as that between two linguistic communities. Despite countless potential differences within one linguistic community, the regime of translation obliges one to speak from within a binary opposition, either to the same or to the other. Thus, in the regime of translation the translator becomes invisible. This attitude in which one is constantly solicited to identify oneself may be called "monolingual address," whereby the addresser adopts the position representative of a putatively homogeneous language community and enunciates to addressees who are also representative of a homogeneous language community. The term monolingual address, however, does not imply a social situation in which both the addresser and the addressee in a conversation belong to the same language; they believe they belong to different languages yet can still address each other monolingually.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Toxicology - Toxicology In Practice to TwinsTranslation - The Concept Of Translation And Its Complexity, Translator: The Subject In Transit, Modernity And The Schema Of Co-figuration: A Genealogy Of The Modern