What is translation? Many peoples (naive) idea: Translation is changing the words of one language into those of another. They usually have in mind particularly written words. Translation can indeed be that. But thats not all there is to it, of course. ν ρχ ν λ γος Inthe beginningwa s theword Words in the Source language Words in the Target language
Translating this way doesnt work very well The results of really taking such a model seriously can be seen by translating something on Babel Fish. (And in fact Babel Fish improves on a raw machine of this sort by several orders of magnitude.) El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz. The respect to the other peoples right is La Paz. El espíritu está presto, mas la carne es débil. The spirit is quick, but the meat is weak.
A somewhat more sophisticated model A more sophisticated model brings the idea of meaning into the picture. Translators dont just match up words: they extract the meanings from the words of a source language, and they then encode those meanings in the words of the target language. ν ρχ ν λ γος In the beginning was the word W HEN PAST( X BEGIN) (THE WORD) E Words in the Source language Words in the Target language Meaning which resides in the words in both languages
It is more complex than that, however It is misleading to think that there is just one meaning (or set of meanings) involved meanings are simple enough to express adequately in simple formulas the meaning is contained in the words ν ρχ ν λ γος In the beginning was the word W HEN PAST( X BEGIN) (THE WORD) E Words in the Source language Words in the Target language Meaning which resides in the words in both languages
It is more complex than that, however It will be helpful to start with picturing how communication normally works in just one language. (Our description will still be oversimplified) ν ρχ ν λ γος In the beginning was the word W HEN PAST( X BEGIN) (THE WORD) E Words in the Source language Words in the Target language Meaning which resides in the words in both languages There is no subject so abstruse and complex but that diligent and careful study will show it to be even more abstruse and complex than it first seemed.
Commonly humans communicate via oral language A speaker has an idea he wishes to communicate. speaker Articulator movements In order to do so, he moves the parts of his articulatory system, producing an acoustic signal.
Communication via oral language The signal reaches the ears of a hearer. speaker Articulator movements The hearer perceives and interprets the signal. Reception of the signal by the audio-perceptive system This stimulates in the hearers mind the idea that the speaker intended. hearer
This is how humans normally communicate speaker Articulatory movements Audio- perceptive routines hearer
Terminology The idea the speaker wants to communicate, and the hearer ultimately gets, is the meaning (signifié). The meaning which the speaker intends is often a bit different from what the hearer comes up with. Thus we can distinguish the meaning s from the meaning h.
Terminology The phonological structure which the speaker activates is often a bit different from what the hearer gets. Thus we can distinguish the phonological structure s from the phonological structure h. The cognitive routines of production, perception and interpretation of the signal symbolize the meaning. They constitute the phonological structure (signifiant).
Terminology The mental (cognitive) association between a phonological structure and a meaning is a symbolic link. The structure formed by associating a meaning and a phonological structure is a symbol.
Applying the terminology to the model of communication: speaker hearer meaning h meaning s phonological structure s symbolic link phonological structure h symbol
A specific example (from Mixe) speaker hearer symbolic link symbol audio- perceptive routines neuro-muscular routines audio- perceptive routines
Important points They include knowing how to produce the sound (neuromuscular aspect), and how to recognize it when you hear it (audio-perceptive aspect.) Phonological structures, not just semantic ones, are cognitive structures (=mental routines).
Important points The signal does not literally have or carry meaning. The meaning is not in the words of the signal, or out in the ether somewhere, but in the minds of the speaker and hearer. What happens is that the signal prompts or sti- mulates the meaning. It is the signal to activate it. It also signals for that meaning to be linked to other, already active meanings. In this way it prompts the construction of new meanings in the hearers mind.
Important points The symbol in the speakers mind must match the symbol in the hearers mind reasonably well for them to be able to easily communicate. Yet they dont have to be fully identical, and usually are not. Each person functions sometimes as speaker and sometimes as hearer. They do not have completely separate meanings and phonological structures in their heads for the two activities.
Important points These two factors: the similarity of symbols in speakers and hearers minds, and the unity of symbols for both speaking and hearing in any one persons mind mean that we can often get away with talking about the meaning or the phonological structure of a (single) symbol.
Important points We should always remember when we talk about the meaning that this is a shorthand for a more complex reality. We should also remember that much language use is to negotiate a closer match between whats in a speakers mind and a hearers. They are not exactly the same. Human communication, by its very nature, is not 100% precise.
This is how it works when it works, of course There are any number of points at which the system can break down and sometimes does. E.g. if the speaker doesnt pronounce the phonological form right if extraneous noise disrupts the signal if the hearer is too deaf to hear the signal etc. But most importantly, it wont work well if the speaker and hearer arent both competent in the language they are using.
When the hearer doesnt know the speakers language Mixe speaker English hearer symbolic link symbol Mixe neuro- muscular routines English audio-per- ceptive routines
Translation is necessary It is this sort of situation that makes translation necessary, of course. Somebody has to take the signal coming from the Mixe speaker, and put in its place an English signal with a similar meaning. Then the English hearer can understand it. (Sort of)
Heres where translation is needed English hearer English auditory routines
Translation is even more imprecise than normal communication That is its nature. There are more points for slippage. The translator makes choices that affect the outcome E.g. he might choose to say hut or cottage or building or home instead of house to translate t ʌ hk. These would emphasize different aspects of t ʌ hk s meaning that house might miss.
Lets establish some more terminology The study of meanings is Semantics. The meaning is the semantic pole of a symbol. The study of speech-sound structures is Phonology. We also speak of the phonological pole of a symbol.
Terminology Symbols are bipolar
The symbolic link The symbolic link is at the heart of language.
The symbolic link What is its basic character? It is a mental association
The symbolic link It works in both directions the link facilitates the activation of the phonological pole If you activate the semantic pole,
The symbolic link It works in both directions the link facilitates the activation of the semantic pole On the other hand, if you first activate the phonological pole,
The arbitrariness of the symbolic link The great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said that the symbolic link is arbitrary. Many understand him to have meant that there is no reason for associating any particular semantic pole with its particular phonological pole. This is not always or necessarily true, however.
Types of symbolic links
Arbitrariness Even when it is iconically motivated, however, there is an element of (arbitrary) conventionality about the choice of a phonological pole. Bottom line: you can pretty much expect that it will be different in a different language.
Other types of signals There are other types of signals Gestures and bodily movements (sign languages) Writing (of many types) Morse code, Braille, etc. Anything that a communicator controls, and a communicatee perceives, can function as a signal.
Other types of signifiants The neurophysical and perceptual routines which enable us to use those signals function as signifiants which unite with meanings to form symbols.
Written language In written language the signal is a series of marks on a medium such as paper. In alphabetical writing the marks bear complex relationships to the sounds and articulatory gestures of a spoken signal. Some aspects of these marks are iconic to the sounds e.g. left-right order of writing parallels order of pronunciation e.g. identity of letters parallels identity of phonemes Other aspects are arbitrary but consistent. (At least one hopes they are consistent)
Written language Even so, the written signals underspecify the phonological signals; i.e. they dont give as much information. Sometimes they confuse them. In a good system they parallel them enough that they can consistently activate many of the right phonological structures and therefore the right meanings.
Written language Establishing the mental link between the phonological pole and the graphical (written) structure helps establish the sym- bolic link between the graphical and the se- mantic poles.
Written language For many users the phonological and graphic structures are always coactivated when they read or write.
Written language With lots of practice (entrenchment), however, the symbolic link to the graphical pole can become independent and strong.
Written language The difference in medium changes the nature of the communication somewhat. Writers need not be present with their readers Therefore readers are more likely not to know who the writer is And writers are likely not to know who their readers will be This is true even though most writings are made with a particular set of readers in mind.
Written language The difference in medium changes the nature of the communication somewhat. Writing does not vanish into thin air like sounds do, so writing can be more permanent. It is therefore possible to re-read a written communi- cation and easier to absorb its meaning over time Secondary readers, who may not have been clearly in the writers mind, may read a written document. Good writers and readers realize such differences and allow for them or capitalize on them.
Written language The links between the phonology and the marks on paper are of course cognitive events as well. I.e., the parallels are in readers/writers minds. As in phonology, there are productive aspects (including neuromuscular routines), and perceptive/interpretative aspects of dealing with graphical elements.
Returning to our Mixe example: writer reader symbolic link symbol visual- perceptive routines neuro-muscular routines visual- perceptive routines
This is for a skilled writer and a skilled reader who gets the original document Unskilled readers and writers will probably have to pronounce the words out loud (and slowly) and activate the phonological pole to connect the meaning and the writing. If the reader gets a copy of the original document, or a copy of a copy, other kinds of noise can enter the system. As time goes by, the language will change, also interfering with the communication.
The transmission and translation of an ancient text is a complex process
You start to get the picture that this is complicated Obviously it is a complex situation, and a rather difficult one. But there are many layers of complexity yet to add. For starters, the meanings of words cannot be expected to match perfectly across languages. house is a reasonably good match for ο κος in Greek or täjc in Mixe. But what a Mixe speaker, an American, or a 1 st -century Greek speaker have in mind when they use the words is likely to be different in a number of ways that may prove important.
Complexity of word meanings What John meant by λ γος and what modern English speakers understand by word is likely to be even more different. Cognitive Grammar talks about encyclopedic meaning, and claims that a words meaning in some sense includes, or could potentially draw on, all that the users of a language know about the entity named.
Complexity of word meanings The complexity of word meanings often shows up in jokes. E.g. Some days youre the pigeon, and some days youre the statue. Why would one laugh at that? Because part of the meaning of pigeon (a rather non-central, minor part) connects with part of the meaning of statue (again a very minor part.)
The complexity of word meanings Meanings, according to Cognitive grammar, consist in some designated entity which is profiled, or stands out as a figure against some cognitive background. Usually that background is very complex. It consists of knowledge shared by the language users. So you can expect it to vary with the culture. It includes all the cultures shared knowledge about the designated entity (which is why meanings are encyclopedic). Often one language will lack the background that is crucial to a word in the other language.
The complexity of word meanings It would take a long time to explain the word checkmate in a culture that did know the game of chess. It would take a long time to explain axle in a language that didnt know about wheels. It takes a long time to explain compadre to English speakers. And so forth.
The complexity of word meanings Small wonder that it takes a while to explain words like שְׁדַּרְפְּנִֽים (satraps) or τετρα ρχης (tetrarch) or πολ τρωσις (redemption) to a Mixe or English- speaking audience. We just dont have the background to understand them.
The complexity of word meanings These shared cognitive backgrounds crucial to meanings vary not only by culture, but by the relationship and common experiences of the communicators. It is because of this that communications between family members or close friends can be so difficult even for native speakers of the same language to fully understand.
Phrases are complex in the same way Phrases and other larger-scale structures, like words, have complex backgrounds. For instance, when St. John began his Gospel with the words ν ρχ, he could count on his readers bringing to mind the first words of Genesis. If modern readers dont get that allusion, they are missing an important bit of the meaning.
The complexity of word meanings Often, even when there are words that correspond pretty well, one language will make reference to some domain that the other lacks entirely. For instance, in Mösiehuali the word tlöcatl, like the English word man, designates an adult male human. Since Mösiehuali and English speakers belong to the same species, the concepts MALE, ADULT and HUMAN are comparable. (But they are not identical. In English a 16-year-old is not a man. But in Tetelcingo he is a tlöcatl.)
The complexity of word meanings Most of you men reading this are not * real* tlöca, however, and it would probably take you a long time to guess why. It is because you are not wearing a hat and (especially) guaraches (leather sandals). English does not so saliently access the domains of footgear and headgear as part of the meaning of man.
Meaning is not just reference but construal Meanings consist not just in what is designated but in how it is construed mentally. Half-full and half-empty designate the same amount but construe it differently. They dont mean quite the same thing. In English you say you dropped your pencil, while in Spanish you would say of the same situation, Se te cayó el lápiz (the pencil fell itself on/to you). In English it is construed as something you did; in Spanish as something that happened to you.
Meanings are actually groups of meanings Meanings are grouped differently in different languages. In Orizaba Nawatl tepostli can mean just about anything made of metal, from a key to a hammer to a car. English has no way to cover that range of meaning with a single word.
Meanings are actually groups of meanings On the other hand, Nawatl has a whole series of words to describe certain sounds which are too specific to be easily translated into English (and its worse into Spanish). E.g. kakapaka means make (with quick repetitions) the sound of something falling into mud, make a (repetitive) plopping sound Kokomoka means make the rushing/crackling sound of a big fire
Meaning includes class-membership Part of the meaning of a word is its class memberships, which may be many. In English, for instance, the rain is an inanimate weather phenomenon. In Cora it is animate. This is an important difference in meaning.
Meanings are complex, and the complex includes the simple Most symbols are complex, made of many parts. The meaning of the whole includes the meanings of the component parts in relation to each other. The whole itself often has meanings that go beyond what could be predicted from the parts.
From morpheme to discourse: the cline of complexity
Complex structures meanings include their components meanings For instance, were running out of time includes at least the following components (at different levels of specificity): we, are, were, run, running, out, out of, out of time, running out of time, were running out of time. were VERB-ing, be VERB-ing, out of NOUN, run(ning) out of NOUN SUBJ VP, V PP, PP
Complex structures meanings include components meanings All these structures have their own meaning and their own phonological structure. They are highly compatible with each other and overlay each other massively But each one makes a contribution to the whole. Most (if not all) give a little something to the whole that none of the others does.
An example of complexity Tumbaburros profiles (designates) a kind of metal grill against a complex background. It does not mean the same as if it were simply called a reja (grillwork).
Complexity of patterns Part of the complexity of a word like tumbaburros is the fact that it and its pieces call to mind (because they are elaborations of) a lot of schematic patterns of Spanish grammar. Those patterns structure the meaning.
Translation often involves reordering, omission, etc. To preserve in translation the meaning of a larger, higher-level unit, you may have to reorder the components add components omit components change the amount of emphasis given components etc.
Translation often involves reordering, omission, etc. You probably dont want to call a tumbaburros a topples-donkeys. But if you call it a donkey-toppler or donkey- dumper you are (besides reordering and other things) adding one new component: the symbol -er, and omitting another (the plural –s). You might even opt for calling it a grill-protector. Then you would be changing the background against which it is profiled. That doesnt mean it would be a bad translation.
Complexity and the literal-idiomatic debate Much of the debate over whether translation should be literal or idiomatic grows out of this complexity. The complexity is such that you *cannot* reproduce all of it when you translate. You *must* choose which aspects to reproduce.
Complexity and the literal-idiomatic debate What your options are depends on what structures are available in the target language. Literal translation works much better between closely related languages like English and Spanish, or English, Spanish and Greek. Even there its pretty hard. Languages with *really* different structures may force you to make bigger changes.
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Here is a relatively simple sentence in Orizaba Nawatl. Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun The morpheme nē- doesnt just mean there, it specifies something like over there in the distance. Will you keep this nuance in your translation? In English we often say here they come while they are still some ways off. There they come also occurs, but there they go is a more natural collocation. We wouldnt easily say over there they come. Which would you pick? The tlakah, as we saw in Tetelcingo, may be teenagers. Do you want to specify that?
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun The extremely common word n can often be translated the. That works for its first and third usages in this sentence, but not for the second one. When it marks nouns it means, more or less, the. But it is also used to mark many different kinds of subordinate clauses.
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun Three of the kinds of clauses n marks are (i) relative clauses (i.e. clauses that modify nouns), (ii) setting clauses (which set the scene for an action), and (iii) location clauses (which describe a location implied by the main verb.) This usage could be any of the three, and probably is best taken as a mixture of all of them: (i) the men who went to make it, (ii) having gone to make it, they are coming back, and (iii) they are coming from where they went to make it / from having gone to make it. Which will you choose? or will you try to keep all of them?
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun We dont call a dead person a died. We dont call a hole a rock-hollow-noun. We dont call a grave a deadman- hole. Would you just translate grave (or, tomb?), or would you try to keep some of the literal flavor of mikkatekochtli? We dont make or do graves the Nawatl stem has both meanings; instead, we dig them. Would you keep the word make here? On the other hand, doing the grave in Nawatl may imply other activities besides the actual digging. It may include all the preparation of the gravesite. Still, this isnt the reduplicated okichihchiw ̯ atoh, which would mean they went to fix it up.
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun The it on they went to make it the grave sounds really weird in English. Would you drop it? Its there in Nawatl! The Nawatl suffix –to indicates motion away. Would you say, in English, that they went to dig it or that they went and dug it, or would you just say they dug it and not mention that they went? Going and doing something is not quite the same thing as going to do it. Nawatl –to doesnt distinguish between these two. How will you choose which way to say it? Nawatl often, and easily, marks the comings and goings implied in different activities: you have to go out of your way to mention them in English. Would you go out of your way in this situation?
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun If you were to say theyve come back from digging the word back would let people know the going happened without your explicitly saying so. This sounds very natural in English. But Nawatl doesnt have a word like back here. Can you justify putting it in?
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun So, how would you translate it? Here are some possibilities. There come the men who went to arrange the burial place. There come the men who went to dig the grave. Over there are the men and boys who have come back from digging the grave. Here come the gravediggers. There are the men, come back from making the graveside preparations. The men have now prepared the gravesite, and are coming back. …etc.… These are not all equally good, though each has something to be said for it.
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun To take one example: Here come the gravediggers is good idiomatic English. But It sounds a bit breezy and the mood of the Nawatl text is likely to be more solemn. Does the rest of your English translation counteract that breeziness enough? It sounds like they dig graves professionally. How likely is that in the Nawatl culture or the particular situation described in the particular Nawatl text? How strongly does the English word imply it?
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun Here come the gravediggers doesnt say they went anywhere. It doesnt say they have actually dug the grave yet. It doesnt say they are men. It doesnt have the same rhythm or elegance as the Nawatl. All these features are either lost or left for people to guess at. Still, it isnt a *bad* translation.
Literal vs. Idiomatic Translation Nēw ̯ itzeh n tlakah n okichiw ̯ atoh n mikkatekochtli. there.they.come the men the they.went.to.make.it the die.ed.rock.hollow.noun I would suggest the following as a good all- purpose translation: There come the men back from preparing the gravesite. But, as you can now tell, it is not perfect. In particular contexts, I would expect to prefer a different translation.
Complexity and the literal-idiomatic debate Literal translation attempts to keep as many of the low-level structures as possible, sometimes even when this means the higher-level meanings are distorted in the process. Idiomatic translation tries to reproduce the overall meanings of larger chunks, even when this involves distorting the meanings of the small chunks.
Complexity and the literal-idiomatic debate Neither approach is perfect. Both are defensible and useful. You dont have the choice to do it perfectly. You can only try to balance things the best way possible.
Summary Human communication, and the languages we use to accomplish it, are very complex. Even straightforward communication does not always result in the hearer getting *exactly* the meaning the speaker intended. Translation adds several grades of difficulty to the process. Nevertheless, it can work surprisingly well. It is worth doing!