Reality, Context and Intentionality

Response to Tom Radcliffe

Michelle Fram-Cohen

Forum: Enlightenment

This essay is a response to Radcliffe's "On Translation", which addresses some philosophical issues in Fram-Cohen's early paper, "Reality, Language, Translation: What Makes Translation Possible".

First, I would like to note that my paper was written for a presentation at a conference of the American Translators Association, a professional organization of practicing translators. While most translators have academic degrees and some of them also work in academia, the American Translators Association is primarily concerned with the practice of translation, not with theories of translation. In fact, the professed purpose of the ATA is to raise the status of translation as a profession and an art. In this context, my paper was aiming at one cause of the low status of translation: the notion that translation is impossible. My target audience consisted of aspiring or practicing translators eager to understand why their hard work was not appreciated. This concern is as valid today as it was back in 1985, when I presented my paper. In his State of the Union Address in January 2000, President Clinton predicted that soon translation devices will replace living interpreters and will translate “as fast as you can speak.” The ATA President wrote a letter to President Clinton, pointing out to him that:

Nothing can replace the truly accurate, nuanced job that a trained human translator produces, and yet, the American public is largely unaware of this fact. Our work is an essential part of the success of American society. The American public needs to know what a tricky, challenging and high-level task every translator and interpreter engages in when he or she sets to work. Please speak to this reality. Please don't build false hopes.

(The entire letter can be found at

With this point out of the way, I am ready to take a purely academic look at my paper, the way Tom Radcliffe does. I would like to address several of the points he makes. Radcliffe is right that my paper leaves a gap between Kant's notion that consciousness filters reality thus making it unknowable and Cassirer's notion that language filters reality thus making it incommunicable. There is a lot of work to be done there and I hope some linguists will undertake the task. I do not agree, however, with Radcilffe's idea that translation is still possible as long as “the conceptual schemes of all humans fail to connect to reality in the same way.” Translation has to depend on some common ground between languages, or between conceptual schemes. What is the common ground of all the conceptual schemes if not objective reality?

Radcliffe correctly assumes that the motivation behind the claim that translation is impossible is more than sound reasoning. Part of it is the wish to reduce knowledge to the perceptual level of concrete words, as described by Rand in her essay “Global Balkanization.” If knowledge is inseparable from the verbal sounds and shapes of a specific language, there is no common ground between languages. This is the antithesis of the “Global Village” of the Internet. I have to be fair to Von Humboldt, however. He recognized that it was possible to learn another language, which he likened to stepping out of the magic circle of one language and into the magic circle of another language. Still, according to him it was impossible to be in more than one circle at the same time. In this sense, language is a sort of prison because it delimits you to a single interpretation of reality. The question is, why is it a problem if one cannot hold all the possible linguistic interpretations of reality within one's consciousness at the same time? Only if one is expected to be omniscient is it a problem. Why should it be a problem for a multi-lingual person to bounce between several languages? This is exactly what an interpreter is doing on the job all the time. The skeptic view of the possibility of translation does not recognize the common ground of the “magic circles:” external reality and the conceptual faculty that conceives it.

I agree with Radcliffe that the Platonic view of perfection may be one cause of the view that translation is impossible –because it can never be perfect. As long as the meaning of the text is comprehensible, the translation is successful. Poetry, of course, presents the challenge of recreating an artistic appreciation. I addressed this issue in my paper when I pointed out that the audience of the original text is made of different individuals who will never react in the same way to the original text, so why should we expect the audience of the translation to react in the same way as the audience of the original?

Radcliffe brings up the aspects of context and intentionality in human communication. Context and intentionlity are good standards for determining if a translation is successful or not. In fact, context is a part of the objective facts that have to be communicated. Consider for example the near-fatal mistranslation depicted in Mig Pilot. As soon as he landed in Japan, the defecting Russian pilot Victor Belenko attempted to communicate with the Japanese bystanders. He gave them a note in which he intended to say, “Contact a representative of the American intelligence service. Conceal and guard the aircraft. Do not allow anyone near it.” Having no knowledge of English, what he actually wrote in the note that he prepared in advance with the aid of a Russian-English dictionary was, “Quickly call representative American intelligence service. Airplane camouflage. Nobody not allowed to approach.” When the Japanese translated the message into Japanese, the meaning that emerged was “Aircraft booby-trapped. Do not touch it.” Obviously, Belenko's linguistic context was different than that of the Japanese bystanders, so he could not communicate his intentions. The Japanese were in the same position of the readers of badly translated poetry, who can understand the words but not get the meaning intended by the poet.

Context and intentionality can justify what appears to be imperfect translation. Radcliffe raises a good objection to my dismissal the anachronistic translation of the Iliad with its reference to Royals and Cape Kennedy. If the purpose of the translation is to evoke a certain emotional response in a modern audience, the context and intentionality justify the anachronisms. But if the purpose is to provide a scholarly reproduction of Classical Greek texts, the context and intentionality preclude such anachronisms.

In conclusion, I certainly think that the new work being done by linguists can add to the study of the possibility of translation. I am glad to see the change that occurred in the academic world since I wrote my paper back in 1985.

©2000 Michelle Fram-Cohen