Reading notes 9/29/2016

p. 365 “If I dare approach this subject…it is because of this very discouragement…” Classic Derrida. Weird apologetic preamble. Capable of the most pompous forms of modesty.

p. 366 ‘…too confident in the now canonical distinction between mention and use’ I think one of Derrida’s best qualities is the way that he seems to take seriously certain idea without allowing them to pin down his own or become too ingrained. There is something to be said–particularly when it comes to something as slippery as language–of a practiced skepticism toward overly ‘cannonball’ explanations.

p. 367 Such skepticism is warranted because “the independence of the word remains a mysterious thing, precarious, not quite natural…”

p. 369 Hypothesizes about the perfectly knowledgeable translator with infinite time, but reaches the conclusion that this would amount to more of what today we would call a ‘reading’ of a text rather than a translation that accounts for the primacy of the word.

p. 370 Puts translation at the level of the word but not in a word for word or word to word, but word by word: this is interesting and at times Derrida meanders toward clarity on the point but it is hard to really and clearly see it.

p. 371 “…unintelligible economy…” Well, definitely unintelligible.

p. 372 introduces the idea of translation that enables mediation between other languages. This is interesting but also seems dangerous. It seems likely to result in the over-fitting of certain concepts or the generalization of said concepts in order to facilitate this equivalence.

p. 377 Reference to bund-in addition to being the German word for bond is this an illusion to Jewish Bundism? Or even the German-American bund? seems like just the multiple meanings that Derrida loves.

This long analysis of The Merchant of Venice seems like a whole lot of lead up for what doesn’t seem to me to be the greatest of punchlines. It’s so meandering and repetitive and yet the repetition never clarifies (as I’ve come to expect with Derrida). At the end of it all, I am hard pressed to honestly say much about the essay. There are flashes here and there of ideas that seem interesting but they don’t really hold together. I’m sure there is some generous interpretation that says this is part of the intended effect of Derrida’s speech (btw, it is incredible that this is was given as a lecture/speech; I can’t possibly imagine following this as a listener), but all in all I have mixed feelings about the piece, as I do with almost all of Derrida’s work. There is something there, but it often seems to solipsistic–entirely incapable of getting out of its own way and actually leading the reader toward a more productive understanding of translation.



Reading notes 9/27

Three kinds of translation:

  1. Intralingual (rewording) – resorts to a circumlocution, not complete equivalence.
  2. Interlingual (‘translation proper’) – substitutes messages from on language to another–not code units; entire messages
  3. Intersemiotic-  verbal signs to non-verbal signs

p. 128 Still use Ptolemaic imagery; does not imply rejection of Copernicus.

“All cognitive experience and it’s classification is conveyable in any existing language.” BOLD statement. ‘Conveyable’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence. To be conveyable does not imply equivalence, and doesn’t preclude deformation in the conveyance.

p. 129. Forgot about dual forms. Such an interesting grammatical feature.

Difference in what languages can and must convey: this is an interesting point but it seems overreaching and seems to rest on the claims further down in the paragraph that all cognitive data can be rendered verbally. This doesn’t seem obviously true to me. Language mediates and shapes much of our experience, but it clearly is not the same as cognition. There are reports of people with micro-seizures who lose language faculties temporarily. Afterwards, they claim that they were still able to think clearly, even without language.

p. 130 Masculine/feminine discussion: always curious why we call masculine and feminine ‘genders’. I mean, if you think about it, in a given language thousands of words are declined a certain way and only a handful of them refer to men, but those handful determine that the gender is ‘masculine’. Some language make animate/inanimate distinctions instead.

I wonder if the relationship is in the opposite direction of that implied by Jakobson: gender of nouns is created based on linguistic features (morphology, phonology, etc.) but the designation also hits social categories (men and women for example) and the characteristics of these categories are then reflected onto all other nouns which share their declension system.

Reading notes 9/13

Schleiermacher – “On the Different Methods of Translating”

interpretation v. translation: The distinction he uses seems somewhat over broad (e.g. he claims that written accounts of business transactions are ‘only a record of a spoken exchange’). There is a point here but there is also a problem of simply being able to dismiss any counterexamples as ‘interpretation’. After all aren’t Homer’s works supposedly derived from oral tales? But of course, I doubt Schleiermacher would call translation of the Odyssey interpretation.

p. 45 ‘There will scarcely be any doubt that cannot easily be remedied as as to which expression in the one language corresponds to any given expression in the other’  How much of this is colored by the similarity between language and cultures that he may be familiar with? Even something as simple as a business transaction may have massive cultural baggage associated with it, so that simply relying on natural equivalence (as he more or less seems to be) could see to massive miscommunications.

p.47 ‘One understands an utterance as an action of the speaker only if, at the same time, one can feel where and how he was seized by the force of langauge.’ An impossibly high standard that very few would ever claim today, I imagine. Post-Freud and all that that entails, no modern person is even willing to lay a strong claim to being able to accurately recall the ‘where and how’ regarding the origin of our own speech.

p. 49 Either leave the write in peace and move the reader; or leave the reader in peace and move the writer. He admits of no (real) possibility of combining the two with any success. The first movement is preferable to the second and he later explains the extent to which the second invites too much arbitrary decision making by the translation.

p. 50 Some discussion of the stages of appreciation of translation within a culture. Interesting, but not sure how accurate. English likely has more works translated into it than any other language simply given the commercial power of the American and other Anglophone markets, but is still seemingly in the first stage discusses here. There is not real appetite for foreign works at least not insofar as they are foreign. At least in my experience, there is little distinction made by the lay reader between translated and untranslated.

p. 55 Makes a claim that translation can influence the entire intellectual development of a nation. Steiner makes some similar claims and had a few good examples regarding the translation of Marx into certain languages as well certain literary movements. I wonder how true this is anymore. English seems to have grown to such imperial size in many intellectual fields that it has actual cannibalized other languages abilities to develop academic language, particularly in smaller languages and particularly in the sciences. Even some ‘proud’ European languages are forced  to force create and foist artificial vocabularies onto their citizens in the hopes of pushing out English loan words.

p.57 “As long as the mother tongue has not yet grown to fit these needs…” Too much risk here of intellectual/linguistic hierarchy/imperialism. Might not be a problem though.  Implicit aesthetic appeals to nationalism probably won’t contribute to warped national identities and notions of racial superiority that will cause huge problems several decades after he writes this.

p.58 See first note above on interpretation v. translation. He totally uses it as an out: “…they truly fall not within the domain of the translator but rather –shall we say?– that of the interpreter”

p. 60-1 Talks about the difficulties of moving the author. This seems to get at the idea that the only true way to achieve a real degree of symmetry in this case would be a radical adaptation (e.g. a story about the treatment of Native Americans by colonial settlers written in English becomes in Dutch a story about the atrocities committed in the Congo)

p. 62 So more cultural nationalism. Coupled with an interesting discussion of how translation might add more rigor into a language.





Reading notes-Steiner 9/8/2016

Four fold movement

Trust is an interesting and non-obvious place to start. The other three ‘folds’ were not novel to me even though I have not read Steiner before. The other three are seen in various other ways of talking about interpretation that have come after, but the idea of ‘trust’ is much less well represented.

I wonder what that ‘trust’ does to us in the general reading process. Though Steiner is talking about translation, there seems little here that does not (or could not) apply to interpretation more broadly.

Steiner says ”we grant ab initio that there is ‘something there’ to be understood. This faith, he argues, is often automatic but rests on a ‘series of phenomenological assumption’. But is there more to be said (or to be understood-perhaps I’m missing something in his argument) about the institutional, the social, the cultural forces which ‘fill’ a text with some certain quality that ensure our trust in it?

It seems quite possible that any of us coming across Derrida in the wild would dismiss it as nonsense. There would not even be the moment of betrayal that Steiner describes given that we would have no reason to trust. I’m not arguing to dismiss Derrida’s idea. But I wonder about my own path in understanding them. I came to his work when I first encountered it with trust. It was being presented to me in a context and by an authority that vouched for it. I struggled with it at first; it seemed like nonsense, but that initial trust allowed me to continue on to the ‘aggression’ phase that Steiner describes.

There I could begin to understand, to summarize, to parse. I could in short begin to ‘break the code’. This opened up Steiner’s third phase: incorporation. Now, i could apply it, wield it, direct it. It could be reduced to a tool, incorporated into a process of reading of criticism.

But I am not sure where to go from there. Steiner’s forth fold (‘reciprocity’) is not easy to imagine. The language he uses to describe it is tantalizing. It is not entirely opaque; in fact, rather frustratingly, it seems to me ever so close to being clear.

Instead, I find myself uninterested with the kind of incorporation that my own field (e.g. literary studies) has offered–that is, I am stuck in the third fold. I wonder if Steiner’s idea of trust has finally made clear to me what exactly it is that I have been finding more and more distasteful overtime. Criticism (or ‘Theory’) is said to be a hermeneutics of suspicion, but it is based entirely on trust. Freudian or Marxist analysis is in some ways much more trusting than any banal hermeneutics of faith. It seems fair to imagine that something that someone wrote means something (at the very least the act of writing is a cultural gesture), but to believe, to trust, that the text has secret depths to be plumbed seems a level of trust several levels beyond.

How much is based on that initial trust? Do we trust to much and too deeply that a text can tell us certain things? That it can mean in certain ways? That is not to say that it means nothing or that there is no point in asking probing questions about ideology or underlying symbolism, but what else are we missing? Trust seems like it may be a pair of blinders.

This has been something of a diversion from translation, but I think it is a question of interpretation that is hardly different in the abstract between a reading and a translation. They are quite honestly versions of the same thing.


Notes on Pym + Equivalence 8/30

Ch. 1

The foregrounding the ubiquity of theory seems important to me; it is made clear from the beginning of the first chapter that theory is not just self-indulgent chin stroking (though surely there is some of that too), but rather it is implicit in the act of translation itself. Any decision (and a translator makes many) is always based on some theory–however coherent or explicit–that justifies the choice over others (clarity, fidelity, client preference, deadlines, etc.).

Also interesting that Pym unpack whether knowing about theory (in an explicit sense) has practical benefits. It is noted that certain problems that are novel might benefit from theory insofar as it can help inform creative solutions. I am somewhat skeptical of this claim. It seems to me that theoretical frameworks may result in the over-fitting of novel problems into pre-existing worldviews.

Ch. 2

The discussion of natural equivalence is refreshingly sympathetic. While there are obviously major issues with it, it a little too easy to bat away with quotes like the one from Mary Snell-Hornby without giving serious consideration to why it was so popular in the first place. When encountering paradigms with such a number of adherents, it makes sense–at least initially–to assume that all those people are not so unbelievably stupid so as to ignored all of its shortcomings for no reason. They may still, of course, be in the wrong, but it is likely that there is some practical benefit that made such a viewpoint attractive in the first place.

The discussions of structuralism and Sapir-Wolf is always one–that as someone with a Chomskian background–I find tiresome. It conflates language (i.e. syntax, vocabulary etc.) with culture and does not even attempt to unpack the difference. Is it really more likely that words or concepts absent in one language lead to their absence in the culture or the other way around? While there is a little of both in different cases, the discussion of how language shapes our thought often gives too much credit to theories of cognition and culture that are entirely linguistic. The reason–such theories would predict if taken to their logical conclusion–that uncontacted tribes in the Amazon basin lack electricity, modern medicine, and internal combustion engines is because their language lacks words for them and therefore they are unable to even imagine (and then create) such things. Perhaps a little harsh, but I think the point stands. There is a need to militate against linguistic determinism while at the same time not flattening languages to a system of entirely interchangeable parts.


Equivalence Entry

As I read I am struck by the feeling that the need for sub-definitions and genera of equivalence begins to bleed to the term of its usefulness. It seems that the discussion around equivalence is incredibly important as it touches on some of the most fundamental questions about language and translation, but is there really any practical import to the stance either for or against equivalence? It seems that trying to considering how certain practical problems are negotiated around the idea of equivalence is perhaps more productive than weighty philosophical ideas (e.g. those expressed in the quote from Mary Snell-Hornby in Pym).