Thursday, October 27, 2011

Roman Jakobson – On Linguistic Aspects of Translation - summary

Roman Jakobson – On Linguistic Aspects of Translation - summary

Roman Jakobson opens his seminal paper "On linguistic aspects of translation" by refuting an argument made by Russell regarding the need to know a word's reference in order to know its meaning. Jakobson argues that denotation does not necessarily entail or mandate reference, and that we have the capacity to know and understand words even without having seen their reference in the non-lingual world.

For Jakobson, the meaning of a lingual sign is its translation into another alternative sign (such as translating "bachelor" into "unmarried man"). Jakobson notes three manners of interpreting a lingual sign:
Rewording – interpreting lingual signs by means of other signs from the same language.
Translation – interpreting lingual signs by means of signs from another language.

Transmutation – interpreting lingual signs by means of signs from non-lingual sign systems.
In the case of rewording, Jakobson reminds us the absolute synonymy is rare or non-existent. The same thing goes for translation as well, with words rarely covering the same semantic denotation and connotation in different languages. Obviously, this bears on the ability to exchange word for word in the process of translation.

However, for Jakobson, translation is not about words but about entire utterances which are transformed for the code of one language to be reconstructed through the code of a different language. Translation involves therefore, for Jakobson, two equal utterances in two different codes.

Translation thus appears to be impossible but Jakobson points to simple fact that we nevertheless use translation on a daily basis. We can always use meta-language to fill in for absent words, or borrowing words from another language. Even if our translation is a bit cumbersome, there is nothing about different languages that prevents communication.

Jakobson's point in "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" is that a lack of semantic equivalences in the target language does not prevent the transformation of conceptual information encoded in the source language.
This becomes more complicated though when trying to transfer meaning to a language that has different grammatical categories. Sex or duration aspects that exist in the grammar of one language but not another might lead to the loss of information or a lack of it in order to choose the correct grammatical form. This can only be compensated for by rich context.

Jakobson famously argues that "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey". Each language requires different choices of grammatical features, resulting in gaps between them. Poetry, according to Jakobson, is the foremost victim of this lingual shortcomings.       

Roman Jakobson – On Linguistic Aspects of Translation - summary
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