Eco: Translation

by Esteban

Diego de Torres Rubio de la Copania de Jesus, 1616

Diego de Torres Rubio (1547-1638), Arte de la lengua aymara, Lima, Francisco del Canto, 1616. Digitized courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Today more than ever before, at the end of its long search, European culture is in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures.

Yet, at the same time, Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition.

Is it possible to reconcile the need for a common language and the need to defend linguistic heritages?

Both of these needs reflect the same theoretical contradictions as well as the same practical possibilities. The limits of any possible international common language are the same as those of the natural languages on which these languages are modeled: all presuppose a principle of translatability.

If a universal common language claims for itself the capacity to re-express a text written in any other language, it necessarily presumes that, despite the individual genius of any single language, and despite the fact that each language constitutes its own rigid and unique way of seeing, organizing and interpreting the world, it is still always possible to translate from one language to another.

However, if this is a prerequisite inherent to any universal language, it is at the same time a prerequisite inherent to any natural language. It is possible to translate from a natural language into a universal and artificial one for the same reasons that justify and guarantee the translation from a natural language into another.

The intuition that the problem of translation itself presupposed a perfect language is already present in Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source language into a target language, one is forced to place one’s faith in the convergence of all languages.

In each language “taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language [reine Sprache].” (Benjamin 1923).

This reine Sprache is not a real language. If we think of the mystic and Kabbalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin’s thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of Pentecostal languages and of the language of birds than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

“Even the desire for translation is unthinkable without this correspondence with the thought of God (Derrida 1980: 217; cf. also Steiner 1975: 64).

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages.

There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalanguage C.

If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language; if it did not exist, it would remain a mere postulate on which every translation ought to depend.

The only alternative is to discover a natural language which is so “perfect” (so flexible and powerful) as to serve as a tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio published his Arte de lengua Aymara (which he supplemented in 1612 with a Vocabulario de la lengua Aymara).

Aymara is a language still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru, and Bertonio discovered that it displayed an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention.

Two centuries later, Emeterio Villamil de Rada described it as the language of Adam, the expression of “an idea anterior to the formation of language,” founded upon “necessary and immutable ideas” and, therefore, a philosophic language if ever there were one (La Lengua de Adan, 1860). After this, it was only a matter of time before the Semitic roots of the Aymara language were “discovered” as well.

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions.

Thus, to conclude, there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation (see Guzmán de Rosas n.d., which includes a vast bibliography). Unfortunately, “due to its algorithmic nature, the syntax of Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms (though not the other way around)” (L. Ramiro Beltran, in Guzmán de Rosas n.d.: III).

Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price of this is that once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms, they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms.

One way out of this dilemma is to assume, as certain authors have recently done, that translation is a matter to be resolved entirely within the destination (or target) language, according to the context.

This means that it is within the framework of the target language that all the semantic and syntactic problems posed by the source text must be resolved.

This is a solution that takes us outside of the problem of perfect languages, or of a tertium comparationis, for it implies that we need to understand expressions formed according to the genius of the source language and to invent a “satisfying” paraphrase according to the genius of the target language.

Yet how are we to establish what the criteria of “satisfaction” could be?

These were theoretical difficulties that Humboldt had already foreseen. If no word in a language exactly corresponds to a word in another one, translation is impossible. At most, translation is an activity, in no way regulated, through which we are able to understand what our own language was unable to say.

Yet if translation implied no more than this it would be subject to a curious contradiction: the possibility of a relation between two languages, A and B, would only occur when A was closed in a full realization of itself, assuming to had understood B, of which nothing could any longer be said, for all that B had to say would by now have been said by A.

Still, what is not excluded is the possibility that, rather than a parameter language, we might elaborate a comparative tool, not itself a language, which might (if only approximately) be expressed in any language, and which might, furthermore, allow us to compare any two linguistic structures that seemed, in themselves, incommensurable.

This instrument or procedure would be able to function in the same way and for the same reason that any natural language is able to translate its own terms into one another by an interpretive principle: according to Peirce, any natural language can serve as a metalanguage to itself, by a process of unlimited semiosis (cf. Eco 1979: 2).

See for instance a table proposed by Nida (1975: 75) that displays the semantic differences in a number of verbs of motion (figure 17.1).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 17.1, p. 348.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 17.1, p. 348.

We can regard this table as an example of an attempt to illustrate, in English–as well as by other semiotic means, such as mathematical signs–what a certain class of English terms mean.

Naturally, the interpretative principle demands that the English speaker also interpret the meaning of limb, and indeed any other terms appearing in the interpretation of the verbal expression.

One is reminded here of Degérando’s observations concerning the infinite regress that may arise from any attempt to analyze fully an apparently primitive term such as to walk.

In reality, however, a language always, as it were, expects to define difficult terms with terms that are easier and less controversial, though by conjectures, guesses and approximations.

Translation proceeds according to the same principle. If one were to wish, for example, to translate Nida’s table from English into Italian, one would probably start by substituting for the English verbs Italian terms that are practically synonymous: correre for run, camminare for walk, danzare for dance, and strisciare for crawl.

As soon as we got to the verb to hop, we would have to pause; there is no direct synonym in Italian for an activity that the Italian-English dictionary might define as “jumping on one leg only.”

Nor is there an adequate Italian synonym for the verb to skip: Italian has various terms, like saltellare, ballonzolare and salterellare; these can approximately render to skip, but they can also translate to frisk, to hop or to trip, and thus do not uniquely specify the sort of alternate hop-shuffle-step movement specified by the English to skip.

Even though Italian lacks a term which adequately conveys the meaning of to skip, the rest of the terms in the table–limb, order of contact, number of limbs–are all definable, if not necessarily by Italian synonyms, at least by means of references to contexts and circumstances.

Even in English, we have to conjecture that, in this table, the term contact must be understood as “contact with the surface the movement takes place upon” rather than as “contact with another limb.”

Either to define or to translate, we thus do not need a full fledged parametric language at our disposition. We assume that all languages have some notion that corresponds to the term limb, because all humans have a similar anatomy.

Furthermore, all cultures probably have ways to distinguish hands from arms, palms from fingers, and, on fingers, the first joint from the second, and the second from the third; and this assumption would be no less true even in a culture, such as Father Mersenne imagined, in which every individual pore, every convolute of a thumb-print had its own individual name.

Thus, by starting from terms whose meanings are known and working to interpret by various means (perhaps including gestures) terms whose meanings are not, proceeding by successive adjustments, an English speaker would be able to convey to an Italian speaker what the phrase John hops is all about.

These are possibilities for more than just the practice of translation; they are the possibilities for coexistence on a continent with a multilingual vocation. Generalized polyglottism is certainly not the solution to Europe’s cultural problems; like Funes “el memorioso” in the story by Borges, a global polyglot would have his or her mind constantly filled by too many images.

The solution for the future is more likely to be in a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma of different dialects.

Polyglot Europe will not be a continent where individuals converse fluently in all the other languages; in the best of cases, it could be a continent where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.

In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors and his or her own tradition.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 344-51.