Reality, Language, Translation:

What Makes Translation Possible

By Michelle Fram-Cohen

(Paper presented in the American Translators Association Conference in Miami in 1985.)

Keywords: Translatability, Sapir-Whorf theory, Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, Objective reality, Conceptual equivalence.

Abstract: Most linguistic theories are incompatible with the possibility of translation. The Sapir-Whorf theory is the most detrimental among them. The Objectivist theory of concepts provides a basis for a linguistic theory that is compatible with translation.

The field of translation is in an awkward situation: Works of translation are carried out while most linguistic theories are skeptical about their possibility to be carried out. Students interested in translation as a career are trained to practice translation--and are taught linguistic theories that deny the possibility of such a practice. This paradox does not disturb the academic world. In their Certification exam, candidates may be asked to describe how linguistic theories can help the practicing translator. The field of translation does not have clear-cut, objective standards for the evaluation of translated works, nor does it have a methodology to aid the translator in his craft. The pervasive view is that translation can never be perfect, i.e. exact. Sloppy translations, such as those cited in the "Tickler File" of the American Translators Association Chronicle, demonstrate this view. Yet translation has been used throughout history, transferring information and knowledge across the linguistic barrier, and was confronted with no serious distrust until the mid 20th Century. There is an unresolved conflict in the profession due to the phenomenon of a daily abundance of translation-in-practice and an attitude of skepticism as to its validity and reliability. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to resolve this conflict by providing a theoretical basis for the possibility of translation.

The conflict between the theories and practice of translation is maintained and stimulated by most contemporary scholars who claim that the existence of translation implies a paradox. Jacques Derrida states the conflict as follows: "For me translation between languages or between sexes is about the same thing: both very simple and impossible in any rigorous way." (1) Sandy Petrey writes in an article about the problems of translation: "Translation is of course an impossible task. No version of any sentence in one language can possibly capture the semantic richness, phonic structure, syntactic form and connotative allusiveness of a sentence in another language." (2). Petrey's attitude is typical of the academic study of translation: the stylistic differences between languages are emphasized, whereas the similarities between languages, which underlie the possibility of translation, are not dealt with. In a paper entitled "On the Impossibility of Translation" which he presented at a translation convention in 1971, Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, writes: "The world's languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide… [Except,] on some rare occasions translation does succeed--beyond all possibility." (3) Following this statement, Payne attempts to provide some guidelines for the task of translating: "Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence--in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic." (4)

When an expert gives translators such an advice, it implies that sloppy translations can be tolerated and sanctioned by the profession. After all, how much can be expected of accidents? For example, in a recent translation of Homer's Iliad, Achilles' magical horses are described as follows:

The chariot's basket dips. The whip
fires in between the horses' ears,
and as in dreams or at Cape Kennedy they rise,
slowly it seems, their chests like Royals, yet,
behind them in a double plume the sand curls up. (5)

This anachronistic translation is evaluated as "licentious but numbingly powerful" in After Babel, George Steiner's comprehensive book about translation. (6)

Laymen may be satisfied with such explanations and examples, excusably distrusting translation for good reason. But what is the cause of the scholars' inability and/or disinterest in finding out what makes translation possible? Those scholars who formulate and disseminate theories that deny the reliability of translation, do not make a technical point against its practice. Nobody ever suggested outlawing translation as a fraud, yet this should have been the skeptics' policy, were they consistent. The skeptical scholars are satisfied with the paradox of translation being possible in practice and impossible in theory. Since the existence of the practice of translation cannot be denied, the paradox may be resolved only by refuting the theoretical impossibility of translation and providing a theoretical basis for the possibility of translation.

Distrust of translation is a result of a distorted view of the nature of language, a view that is incompatible with the possibility of translation. This distorted view holds that language precedes reality (by "reality" I mean the external, perceivable world), that words precede their referents.

The precedence of language over reality was clearly formulated by American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in the early 20th century by what is known as the Sapir-Whorf theory. Whorf summarizes the theory as follows:

It was found [by linguists] that the background linguistic system (in other words, the grammar) of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas but rather is itself the shaper of ideas... Formulation of ideas is not an independent process, strictly rational in the old sense, but is part of a particular grammar, and differs, from slightly to greatly, between different grammars... The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significance as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way... We cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees. This fact is very significant for modern science, for it means that no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation. (7)

Taken consistently, the Sapir-Whorf theory means that language is a subjective agreement by a group of people to conceptualize and verbalize their perceptions of reality in a certain way. The theory also means that the differences between languages are differences between conceptual interpretations of reality. The theory states that it upholds the "relativity of all conceptual systems", thereby excluding the possibility of an objective conceptual system. Since each language is supposed to describe the particular subjective reality of its speakers, translation between two languages would actually be impossible on this view.

The Sapir-whorf theory is currently considered too extreme in scholarly circles--but fundamentally not refuted. The view that translation is theoretically impossible is also still regarded as not refuted. But the Sapir-Whorf theory is the result of Modern Philosophy, specifically in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. There is a link between Kant's philosophy and the idea that language shapes one's perceptions of the world. According to Kant's philosophy, one's consciousness creates the external world: "The world men perceive and deal with, the `phenomenal world', is a human creation, a product of fundamental mechanisms inherent in the structure of human consciousness." (8) Wilhelm Von Humboldt, a 19th Century German scholar and a student of Kant's philosophy, applied Kant's philosophy to language. Von Humboldt claims that "language is not really learned--certainly not taught--but rather develops `from within,' of its own accord, by processes more like maturation than learning." (9) This view relies on the idea in Kant`s philosophy that the innate structure of the human mind creates an image of the external world independent of what the external world is. Von Humboldt implies that words are created by the innate structure, and concludes that language precedes the objects it describes: "Man lives with his objects chiefly--in fact, since his feeling and acting depend on his perceptions, one may say exclusively--as language presents them to him... Each language draws a magic circle round the people to whom it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape." (10)

Von Humboldt's view was carried further by Ernst Cassirer, a 20th century Neo-Kantian German linguist. Cassirer added to Von Humboldt's view of the precedence of language over reality the idea of the superiority of language over reality: "If language is to grow into a vehicle of thought, an expression of concepts and judgments, this evolution can be achieved only at the price of foregoing the wealth and fullness of immediate experience." (11) Writing essentially from this point of view, Noam Chomsky expresses the idea that "normal human intelligence is capable of acquiring knowledge through its own internal resources… and it is capable of generating new thoughts and of finding appropriate and novel ways of them in a way that entirely transcends any training or experience." (12)

The idea that language is created inside one's mind independently of outside experience eliminates the possibility that the external world is the common source of all languages. But a common source of all languages underlies any attempt to explain the possibility of translation. Chomsky suggests that the common basis of all languages is universal phonetics and semantics, with the result that "certain objects of human thoughts and mentality are essentially invariable across languages." (13) To the best of my knowledge Chomsky did not develop this idea in the direction of explaining the possibility of translation. In contrast, linguist Eugene Nida insists that outside experience is the common basis of all languages when he writes that "each language is different from all other languages in the ways in which the sets of verbal symbol classify the various elements of experience." (14)

Nida did not provide the philosophical basis of the view that the external world is the common source of all languages. Such a basis can be found in the philosophy of Objectivism, originated by Ayn Rand. Objectivism, as its name implies, upholds the objectivity of reality. This means that reality is independent of consciousness, consciousness being the means of perceiving ­reality, not of creating it. Rand defines language as "a code of visual-auditory symbols that denote concepts." (15) These symbols are the written or spoken words of any language. Concepts are defined as the "mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." (16) This means that concepts are abstractions of units perceived in reality. Since words denote concepts, words are the symbols of such abstractions; words are the means of representing concepts in a language. Since reality provides the data from which we abstract and form concepts, reality is the source of all words--and of all languages. The very existence of translation demonstrates this fact. If there was no objective reality, there could be no similar concepts expressed in different verbal symbols. There could be no similarity between the content of different languages, and so, no translation.

Translation is the transfer of conceptual knowledge from one language into another. It is the transfer of one set of symbols denoting concepts into another set of symbols denoting the same concepts. This process is possible because concepts have specific referents in reality. Even if a certain word and the concept it designates exist in one language but not in another, the referent this word and concept stand for nevertheless exists in reality, and can be referred to in translation by a descriptive phrase or neologism. Language is a means describing reality, and as such can and should expand to include newly discovered or innovated objects in reality. The revival of the ancient Hebrew language in the late 19th Century demonstrated the dependence of language on outward reality. Those who wanted to use Hebrew had to innovate an enormous number of words in order to describe the new objects that did not confront the ancient Hebrew speakers. On the other hand, those objects that existed 2000 years ago could be referred to by the same words. Ancient Hebrew could not by itself provide a sufficient image of modern reality for modern users.

Any word has a referent in reality, however indirectly. All concepts can be described by their manifestations in reality. For example, "empirical" means "based on observable phenomena." Even religious concepts, supposedly based on faith, can be described: The Arabic `hadj' is "a pilgrimage to Mecca made during `Ramadan'" which is "the ninth month of the Moslem year spent in fasting from sunrise to sunset." (17)

The problem of stylistic and connotative differences between languages is not as fundamental as those who are skeptical about translation claim. The style of a language functions the way spice functions on food. Language would be stale and boring without the flavor of its idioms and sound effects, but idioms and sound effects have no conceptual function on their own, just as spice has no nutritious value by itself. For example, the idiom "keep your shirt on" has the conceptual equivalent of "don't get too angry" in any language. The idiomatic form has nothing to do with taking off one's shirt. Another example is the sound effect of alliteration in Victor Hugo's novel Ninety Three. When Sergeant Radoub exclaims: "Everybody has parents, or has had them", the woman he addresses is bewildered by the sound of "or has had them", because it sounds "more like the cry of an animal than human speech." (18) In French, "or has had them" is "ou on an a eu" which indeed sounds like the howling of a wild animal. The link between the meaning and the sound of this line in the French original can be explained in a footnote in any language, however.

The skeptical view of translation claims that reality is not described but created by language, and that each language creates its own reality. The evidence brought forward to support this view, however, is drawn mostly from the problems of translating between modern and primitive languages. For example, Ernst Cassirer writes that a certain Central American Indian tribe believes that both agricultural work and ritual dance make the crops grow, and that both acts are therefore identical. The tribesmen therefore have one word for "work" and "dance", a fact which makes it impossible to translate these concepts from their language into English, and vice versa. (19) This problem can be resolved by observing reality: Work and dance can be distinguished because they are not identical. Their differences can be perceived easily. In translating from English into the tribe's language, a descriptive phrase can distinguish between "work" and "dance". In translating from the tribe's language into English, it will be necessary to find out which act is referred to. But as a matter of fact translation is rarely confronted with such a gap between the world-views of two languages. The bulk of translation is done between modern 1anguages, the world-views of which are much more similar. The majority of translation can therefore be explained by Ayn Rand's theory of conceptual equivalence.

Ernst Cassirer was doubtful about the correlation between objects and the words that designate them: "But how can such differentiae [of objects] exist prior to language? Do we not, rather, realize them only by means of language, through the very act of naming them?" (20) Cassirer's view demonstrates a common erroneous equivocation of concepts and words. He assumes that reality is interpreted verbally, without a prior stage of conceptualization. Most people equate concepts with words because they never conceive of concepts as separate from words. It is impossible to conceive of a concept without naming it, which is why words are necessary. Words are necessary so that we can grasp our mental integration of two or more units into a concept. Without naming the concept, man cannot hold it in mental focus.

Phases of conceptualization are mentally experienced as an integrated single process. Thus it is easy for most people to believe that concepts are identical with the words that designate them, and that since words are optional, concepts are optional too. But only the selection of words, not of concepts, is by social agreement. The social agreement enables people to communicate their thoughts to one another. But a hermit can invent his own language in order to think alone. (His concepts, however, will still be equivalent to those of other languages). The Sapir-Whorf theory reverses the tempora1 sequence of cause and effect, because it is the conceptual faculty that organizes the flux of perceptual experience into concepts, which are then named. There is no such thing as a linguistic faculty that creates concepts in the form of words as the theory claims.

That concepts and words are not equivalent is shown by the fact that one word can have more than one meaning in the same language (i.e. "trunk' in English). Each such meaning represents a different concept. Mistranslations happen when in the source language one word represents several concepts, while in the target language each of the same concepts is symbolized by a different word. To be accurate, the translator has to identify the concept and the referent that the word in the source language represents. But if the translator fails to distinguish all the different concepts that the word in the source language stands for, the translator will not be able to distinguish between the various referents those concepts stand for, and may select a word in the target language that represents the wrong referent. Such a failure, due to the confusion of concepts with words, resulted in the little horns on the head of Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses. The Latin translator of the Bible encountered the phrase which in Hebrew means "and rays glowed from Moses' face". Since in Hebrew "rays" and "horns" are referred to by the same word ("karnayim"), the translator selected the Latin word for "horns", and mistranslated the sentence as "and horns grew on Moses' head."

Conceptual equivalence makes translatability possible, as I have argued. There are still, of course, stylistic differences and cultural gaps between languages. These can be resolved by explanatory footnotes, which are a legitimate part of translation. The direct and immediate response of the source audience to stylistic forms and culturally loaded references cannot be recreated for the target audience by these footnotes. But is the function of translation to guarantee that the target audience responds in the same way the source audience does? Even within the source audience there will be different responses to the same original work, depending on the different individuals who encounter it. I believe the function of translation is fulfilled when the conceptual meaning finds its equivalence in the target language. How to respond to this conceptual meaning is up to each individual.


1. Derridas, Jacques. Quoted in Translations, Works, Words, Old, New. Binghamton: National Resource Center for Translation and Interpretation, 1984, p. 7.

2. Petrey, Sandy. "Must History Be Lost in Translation?" Translation Perspectives. Binghamton: National Resource Center for Translation and Interpretation, 1984, p. 87.

3. Payne, Robert. "On the Impossibility of Translation", The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4.

4. Ibid, p. 363.

5. Quoted in Steiner, George. After Babel. Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 351.

6. Ibid.

7. Whorf, Benjamin L. "Linguistic Relativity", Reading in Applied Linguistics. Oxford University Press, 1973, p 109.

8. Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels. New York: Stein and Day, 1982, p. 59.

9. Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind. NIT, 1968, p. 67.

10. Quoted in Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth, transl. Susan K. Langer. Dover Publications, 1946, p. 9.

11. Ibid, p. 98.

12. Chomsky, Noam. Op. Cit., p. 8.

13. Ibid, p. 66.

14. Nida, Eugene. The Theory and Practice of Translation. United Bible Societies, 1932) p. 105.

15. Rand, Ayn. Global Balkanization. Palo Alto Book Service, 1977, p. 3.

16. Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The Objectivist Inc., 1966, p. 75.

17. American Heritage Dictionary, ed. William Morris. New College Edition, 1979.

18. Hugo, Victor. Ninety Three, transl. Lowell Bair. Palo Alto Book Service, 1962, p. 8.

19. Cassirer, Ernst. p. 40.

20. Ibid, p. 24.