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Roman Jakobson has had a strange fate. Everybody knows his name and are willing to recognise him as an important character of the global cultural scene. Few, however, have read what he wrote beyond those four or five famous quotes. Quotes that, taken out of context, might not be understood completely and correctly. The selected works by Jakobson are in eight large volumes. Taking into account that he wrote on various other topics, from Russian literature, to Slavic philology, to phonology, to neurology, the pages devoted to themes that are relevant to translation semiotics are "only" a thousand. It is evident that Jakobson has so many things to tell us about translation and that so far we were quite reluctant to read him. Jakobson's approach to translation is a semiotic one. Someone might wonder what relationship there is between semiotics and translation. What does it matter to a translator the theory of the sign of Saussure or Peirce, since she faces practical texts, not theories? To this I reply with two points: 1) all translators, even the most refractory to the theory, follow principles. The reason why it does not make sense "not to be interested in the theory" if you translate is that all translators, perhaps unwittingly, have a theory. We have a theory on how to peel an apple or how to dress pants even if nobody has taught us. We all have a mind whose operation can be parsed, and yet there are people who "are not interested" in psychology. Translation is an activity that inevitably forces its practitioners to think about their target reader, and to formulate a message that takes account of the recipient, and then to draw up a communication strategy. And each translator will read the original document, will process it using her innner mental nonverbal language, and will put out the translated text projecting it onto the receiving culture. Then the difference is between those who knowingly use the theory, and those who use it unconsciously. 2) Any conception of translation is like an application program based on an operating system, and in this case the operating system is the theory of the sign. In other words, if you think that between the word 'dog' and the animal in question there is an equivalence relation, you get a given theory of translation; but if you think that between the word "dog," and the animal in question there is a series of creative and non-reciprocal links, then you get a completely different theory of translation. This book comes from my reflection activities connected to my teaching work at Milan’s Civica Scuola Interpreti e Traduttori «Altiero Spinelli» and, in turn, will provide study materials for students in the coming years and at the same time, I hope, inspiration for new ideas in the minds of readers. For criticism, comments, messages you can write me at the address email@example.com. Milan, July 17, 2016
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1. Jakobson and the mental phases of translation
1.1. Inner speech
1.2. Writing and reading as intersemiotic translation
2. Jakobson: translation as imputed similarity
2.1. Peirce’s triad
2.2. Syntax, paradigm
2.3. Evolution of meaning and invariance
2.4. Cultural basis of translation
3. Translation from rags to riches in Jakobson
3.0. Three types of translation misunderstood
3.1. Beyond Saussure
3.2. Mathematical precision in human disciplines
3.3. Beyond the trivium. Translation, center of semiotics
This book is based on the principle that it is possible to create a text out of the writings of an author, focusing on a subject that had not necessarily been considered central or fundamental in the original author’s view. Roman Jakobson wrote many articles and books, that only partially dealt with translation. My intention here is to synthesize his thought on translation by collecting a number of quotations from different papers and essays of different times, originally written in various languages, and rearranging them according to my own criteria.
The result is a series of paragraphs and chapters whose identity derives from the assembling of heterogeneous texts that, however, see one given topic from different perspectives. The first chapters focus on inner language as a nonverbal code, and the consequences of the continuous shift from verbal to nonverbal and viceversa occurring during speech, writing – coding –, hearing, reading – decoding –, and therefore occurring within the translation process itself. The notion of “intersemiotic translation” is considered from a new perspective.
In the central chapter Jakobson’s distinctive features method is applied to translation. Using the similarity/contiguity and imputed/factual variables, taken from Peirce’s writings, Jakobson realizes that one of the four actualizations is missing from Peirce’s treatment. Translation, that according to Jakobson is not equivalence but evolution of sense, may well be imputed similarity, the missing actualization of the aforementioned variables.
In the third chapter the focus is on the difference between humane disciplines and exact sciences, and where translation studies belong. Scientific method should be limited to exact disciplines or extended to humane fields as well? This decision has many implications, starting from the name of our discipline – translation science, translatology, translation studies, translation theory – passing through scientific terminology and arriving to semiotics, that according to Jakobson is the science within which the translation discipline should develop itself. Since in classic times disciplines were divided into trivium (humane fields) and quadrivium (sciences), following Jakobson’s semiotic path would mean to overcome trivium, to get out of triviality, in a sense.
In a slightly different form the three chapters were published as articles as follows:
(2009). Jakobson and the mental phases of translation. MutatisMutandis, 2(1), 73-84.
(2008) Translation as imputed similarity”. SignSystemsStudies 36.2:315-339.
(2016) Translation from rags to riches in Jakobson. SignSystemsStudies, still to be defined.
One of the first aspects that are often underestimated when dealing with the translation process is the mental side of the process itself. Jakobson, as a Russian high-school student, had studied Vygotsky and inner speech as a standard subject. He took it for granted, as more or less all Slavic countries students do. It has a major, if implicit, role in his theory. In Western countries, by contrast, inner speech is not taught at all. As a consequence, all West-European and American translation theories tend to ignore the fundamental passage of the text through the translator's mind, with the implication that the text is deverbalized, and then reverbalized.
To be able to see the full extent of Jakobson’s revolutionary thought and its implications for intersemiotic translation, it is necessary to follow – through his writings – the consequences of the notion of “interpretant” as far as speech production is concerned. The interpretant, “mental sign” (Peirce: 5.476) mediating between sign and object, makes speech production a very personal matter, with implications of affective and unconscious character. From this point of view, Saussure’s theory could not have been more distant from Peirce’s, and from Jakobson’s:
With respect to all other comparable acts, the character of the verbal act seems to Saussure “the least deliberative, the least premeditated and at the same time the most impersonal of all” (Jakobson 1979: 153).
In contrast, speech is so personal that, in its earliest occurrences, it is exclusively personal, i.e. devised to make communication between the child and himself/herself possible. Without any syntactical constraints, without any linearity, and ready to follow many directions at once, the child’s thought is not something alien to language, and at the same time is not outer language pronounced at mental level: it is speech with oneself, without words. Eventually, the discovery of sentences becomes an obstacle to the absolute linguistic freedom of the first months of life:
[...] the discovery of the sentence and the increasing freedom in its lexical filling out in the child’s linguistic behavior is accompanied by a gradual freezing of word creation. Neologism is eclipsed by syntactic tasks. The period of freedom and productivity of words, which contrasts so strikingly with the fixed vocabulary of the adult, has been shrewdly recognized by the greatest observers of human language. [...] The American thinker Charles Sanders Peirce maintains that the child, “with his wonderful genius for language” [1.349], loses this remarkable gift as time passes (Jakobson 1979: 147).
There is a huge part of language that most linguists never considered, and this is speech genesis (if we do not take into account Chomsky’s unfortunate trial concerning ‘deep structures’, that failed precisely because it tried to follow Saussure’s “impersonal” imprint). With the aid of Peirce’s basic triad, which forces any debate on language to consider the mental (personal) passage of thought and speech production, and using his main tripartition of signs, it is easier to see the difference between the view of speech as loudspeaker and the view of speech as translation. As Jakobson himself says:
The classification of human sign systems must resort to several criteria as, for instance: the relation between the signans and signatum (in accordance with Peirce’s triadic division of signs into indices, icons, and symbols with the transitional varieties); discrimination between sign production and mere semiotic display of ready-made objects (Jakobson 1967: 661).
Semiotic display of ready-made objects can be either indexical (I show you something by indicating it with my finger) or iconic, like in Swift’s paradox of men going around with objects on their back to communicate. Swift’s satire, usually considered directed against his own English dominant culture, can be actualized as being directed against the dominant culture in linguistics neglecting the actual sign formation implied in verbal speech, and mental speech. This induces Jakobson to devise a new linguistic category, beyond interpersonal communication: intrapersonal communication.
[...] difference between merely bodily and instrumental production of signs; distinction between pure and applied semiotic structures; visual or auditory, spatial or temporal semiosis; homogeneous and syncretic formations; various relations between the addresser and the addressee, in particular intrapersonal, interpersonal or pluripersonal communication (Jakobson 1967: 661).
Jakobson has the advantage of being an émigré, of being used to adapting to new cultural and linguistic media. His position is ideal for a syncretic view of research efforts in the West and in Eastern Europe: while many fellow linguists in the United States in the Sixties are under the spell of generative grammar, he has the opportunity to read Slavic (in this case above all Russian) contributions. His fervid mind can make connections between Peirce and Vygotskij:
Language is a vehicle not only for interpersonal, but also for intrapersonal communication. This field, for a long time scarcely explored or even totally ignored, faces us now, especially after such magnificent reconnaissances as those of L. S. Vygotskij and A. N. Sokolov, with an imminent request for investigating the internalization of speech and the varied facets of inner language which anticipates, programs and closes our delivered utterances and in general guides our internal and external behavior, and which shapes the silent retorts of the tacit auditor (Jakobson 1968a: 697).
Such neglecting is not a historically constant phenomenon: in the Middle Ages there were times when internal speech was addressed by scholars like Aquinas and Occam:
[...] attention to internal speech, termed verbummentissiveinterius by Thomas Aquinas, sermointerior by Occam, for whom triplexestterminus:scriptus,prolatus, and conceptus, more exactly defined as intentio and as parspropositionismentalis. Later this vital aspect of language remained underrated or unnoticed for a long span of time (Jakobson 1968: 192).
The fact that words are a question of giving substance to more volatile thoughts – something argued in a (comparatively) very recent time by Vygotskij – is attested by the very existence of words like “substantive”, originating from such a concretization process. The dialectics between mind and verbal speech is thus seen as a swinging between volatilization and concretization.
[...] a substantive does not name a substance but shows only that the given conceptusmentis is represented like a substance (permodumsubstantiae) yet could be actually represented by any other part of speech (idemconceptusmentisperomnespartesorationispotestsignificari), and on the other hand, everything, whether an actual entity or a negation or a pure figment, in its linguistic expression may obtain modumsignificandiessentialemnominis. Hence all such words become genuine substantives, irrespective of their lexical meaning (significatalectionum) (Jakobson 1968:193).
Jakobson’s original investigation into the sources of literature on inner speech takes him to the Czech linguist Bernard Bolzano, whose important work is not well known, probably because it does not fit into any “school” whatsoever. And it is a great loss, because his thought is really interesting:
[Bolzano] adds lucid footnotes on the important distinction to be made between signs [Zeichen] and indices [Kennzeichen] which are devoid of an addresser, and finally on another pressing theme, the question of the relationship between interpersonal (anAndere) and internal (Sprechenmitsichselbst) communication (Jakobson 1974: 203).
According to Peirce’s theory, a sign (any percept) produces in the interpreter an interpretant that leads him to an object. Such an object can be a real, tangible object (something), or can be just a thought. In the latter case, the initial sign is the source of thought, since any thought can, on its turn, become the sign of a further triad. This occurs even when reflection concerns language itself: metalanguage and metathought.
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