1. Relativism and Universal Rationalism
hen a translator is faced with a text, he should take into account that the product of his translation is directed at people that come from a background which is different from that of the original target audience. When we talk of a different background, we refer to people with a different history, participating in different social practices and speaking a different language.
In philosophy, we face two perspectives from which to consider a translation. The first is that of relativism. Relativism is a philosophical perspective that considers our cognitive exercise of understanding as filtered by a culturally defined conceptual way of thinking. Therefore, common biological or genetic factors, like race, are insignificant in the formation of knowledge schemes and concepts in comparison with those factors that provide the surroundings where the individual developed. In short, one can say that a human being is born without these knowledge schemes and that it is culture that creates them and molds his development.
It seems man cannot invent anything that he cannot conceive.
We can also think of translation from a second, contrary perspective, that of universal rationalism. Universal rationalism proposes a biological and psychological determinism. This theory advocates nativism, which homogenizes all human practices and concepts, while diversity is relatively superficial and of secondary importance. Within linguistics, one of universal rationalism's exponents is Chomsky, who in the 1950s proposed a theory defending the innate character of the faculty of language. According to Chomsky, the more than 4,000 existing languages present a surprisingly similar syntax, in spite of their phonologic and graphic differences. This fact allows languages to be translated from one into another.
Choosing one of these perspectives would imply having a completely different perception of a translator's job. From the universal rationalism perspective, the translator must trace the reality exposed in one text over to another, limiting himself to merely one transfer. The reader of the translation (also known as the target text or TT) shares common biological and psychological characteristics with the reader of the original text (also known as the source text or ST). Therefore, from the universal rationalism perspective, the translator should not find it difficult to interpret the TT, even if the TT contains references to a culturally distinct setting. In effect, the differences in context will be limited by the biological and psychological makeup of the reader of the ST and the reader of the TT. In this case, the translation exercise would be reduced fundamentally to a linguistic one.
A translation exercise from the perspective of relativism differs from the same exercise from the perspective of universal rationalism on two points. First, although one accepts that the potential readers of these two products share common biological and psychological characteristics, the determinism that these characteristics exert at a cognitive level is to be questioned. Therefore, the emphasis is on what the readers have in common, rather than on the differences, the distinct interpretation strategies that arise as consequences of the different cultural context. In this sense, the translator makes a greater commitment with the reader of the TT; this would imply saying the same thing with different codes (Jakobson, 1959), maintaining the stylistic impact of the original. The translation would not simply be a question of linguistics. One should start translating not only words, but also concepts and even contexts.
2. The problem of equivalence
Translations using the relativism perspective have raised a heated controversy in the last twenty years. The question raised by those who do not support this type of translation is "Do we continue to have the same text?" This question, taken to the extreme, would lead us to the metaphysic and metatheoretical questions of the translation, because it could require a redefinition of the entire translation exercise. The problem with which we are presented is that of equivalence in translation. The TT and the ST must be equivalent in words, in message and, as far as possible, in grammatical structures.
The ideal would be an intermediate point where the translator commits himself to a high fidelity at the linguistic level as long as it doesn't interfere with the comprehension of the TT. This would agree with Bernárdez's (1995) theory of self-regulation of communication. According to this theory, the sender of the message, the translator in this case, will adjust the information according to the necessities of the receiver and other contextual factors in a process of self-regulation that have a tendency towards a state of entropy or a state of equilibrium. Equilibrium here would be understood as the ideal result where the message has maximum comprehension with minimum alteration of the linguistic elements and structures.
3. The different linguistic schools and their influence on translation
We shouldn't remain unaware to the fact that the prevalence of different linguistic schools, from different time periods, have had a role in the different views of translation. Therefore, within structuralism one tends to see language like a collection of relations, of interconnected subsystems. According to this school of thought, each element is defined according to the role that it plays in this set of relations. Due to the importance that this linguistic paradigm has exerted from the 1930s until well into the century, it is no wonder that translation was more centered on linguistic structure and how structural relations of the ST could be preserved in the TT. One of the defenders of structural integrity was Cartford (1965), who distinguished between rank-bound translation and unbounded translation. Rank-bound translation is a method of translation that maintains equivalencies at the word, or even morpheme, level. According to Cartford, rank-bound translation is the only feasible method to use between languages that have similar structures at the morphologic and syntactic level. As far as unbounded translation is concerned, the equivalence would be found at more complex levels like sentences.
However, in the 70s, with the advent of new streams of thought, like cognitive linguistics, paradigms like structuralism remained relegated to a peripheral position, except in classical studies, Latin and Greek. New factors were introduced in the study of linguistics. Among them were the different cognitive activities like perception, vision, and conceptualization; in addition, aspects like kinesthesia and the interaction of body and space gained interest. Also, the appearance of neuroscience in the 70s and its first achievements contributed to the flourishing of this new linguistic school. The cognitive linguist attributes great weight to the formation of conceptual schemes specific to the cultural surroundings of the speakers of the language. This specificity is what produces different conceptual categories in diverse knowledge systems such as language.
4. Equality and difference between cultures: an anthropological perspective
In speaking of specificity, we're touching on the anthropological question of to what degree does a common ground exist between different cultures or between speakers of different languages. Evidently, we cannot assume that any system is translatable into another. Two completely different systems that have nothing in common cannot be totally explained one in terms of the other. From the point of view of anthropological studies, the members of a specific world could not understand another world if it is diametrically different from theirs. Hilary Putnam (1981) referred to this when she spoke of the Principle of Charity. According to the Principle of Charity, human beings share a great number of concepts, the difference between them being perception. Therefore, the notion of concept would have a generic character and the way they are perceived would correspond to the distinct specific perceptions that occur in each culture, or in each individual, of a given concept.
Of course, the different perceptions that you can have of a given concept, do not simply appear among the individuals separated by a culture. We can also speak of concepts where different perceptions exist in different times. This would lead us to speak of a type of translation that is not inter-linguistic or intercultural, but rather inter-temporal. For example, the perception of love is not the same for an urban European from the XXI century as it is of a person from a medieval court from any European city. Nevertheless, in present times we can explain the ideas, beliefs, rituals, etc., that sustained the love forms of a denizen in a European medieval court, which implies a type of translation at a semiotic level and would relate to questions such as intertextuality. In any case, if we can still interpret certain practices or behaviours as love-related despite the centuries that passed between the two models of our example, it is because even though there are different conceptions of love, we still have one unique concept. Evidently, this example would lead us to have to redefine the concept of culture, and to consider whether the same culture in two different stages of its evolution constitute two different cultures. Therefore if someone of our time, in Europe, explained what the love means to a person from a medieval European court, he would be executing a type of translation. In the same manner, the anthropologist does not only use an external position from which to contribute a scientific knowledge that permits the translator to reconsider the adopted procedures to do his work. The anthropologist is also the translator. An anthropologist studies the cultural, communication and linguistic practices of a people so he can later describe them to individuals absolutely foreign to those people. To achieve that purpose, he must describe the different practices and under what context these practices occur, in a way that can be understandable by the future receptor. This description will become the basis for conceptual schemes of his own from which he interprets these practices. This leads us again to insist on the similarities that occur between geographically and culturally remote peoples. If not, we would not be able to understand the social organization, rituals, or general practices of cultures different from ours and, according to Foley (1997,171), "anthropology as a discipline could not exist".
These similarities also present themselves in manifestations of high creativity and freedom, like in artistic manifestations. Therefore in movies or in literature, when one tries to narrate events that occurred in fantasy or unreal worlds, including other planets, the characters are given human-like characteristics or behaviors. It seems man cannot invent anything that he cannot conceive. This is applicable to translation from a ST to a TT because, according to the perspective that we are referring to, the possibility of translation is a display of the similarity that exists between two worlds. It is the job of the translator to find these similarities and use them accordingly in favor of his readers.
Translation is one of the oldest human practices both in its written and oral forms. Without a doubt, translation is essential for making communication between people of different cultures possible. As far as if it should be centered on formal aspects of the text or on its content, the debate should take into account the purely functional character of translation. Not all translations occur in the same context nor do they have the same objective. This fact demands such versatility from the translation professional that it frequently requires specialization of the translator. For their part, the different social sciences can, from a theoretical point of view, study factors that participate in the translation exercise. These contributions from different fields permit the translator to reflect on the task of translation from different unexplored perspectives.
Bernárdez, Enrique (1995) Teoría y Espistemología del Texto, Madrid: Cátedra.
Cartford, John C. (1965) A Linguistic Theory of Translation: An Essay on Applied Linguistics, London: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam (1968) Language and Mind. Expanded Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanavich.
Foley, William A. (1997) Anthropological Linguistics, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Jakobson, Roman (1959) 'On linguistic aspects of translation', in R. A. Brower (ed.) On Translation, Cabridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 232-9.
Putnam, Hilary (1975) Mind, language and Reality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.