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On Translation
A Response to Michelle Fram-Cohen
by Tom Radcliffe

Date: 2000-11-04
Forum: Enlightenment
Copyright: Tom Radcliffe


Michelle Fram-Cohen's enquiry into translation includes three separate theses:

This is a lot of ground to cover for a short essay, and not all of Fram-Cohen's arguments are equally persuasive. I argue here that her positive case for the possibility of translation is more powerful than her analysis of the opposing view, and deserves a more central place in her essay. I further argue that her argument can be augmented by consideration of J.L. Austin's theory of illocutionary acts, as described by Searle. This augmentation brings poetry within the scope of Fram-Cohen's approach, whereas naively it would seem to lie outside it.

Rather than the existing structure of the essay, I would have rather seen it open with the question: "To what in reality does TRANSLATION refer?" Fram-Cohen answers this question in the closing paragraphs:

"the transfer of conceptual knowledge from one language into another"
I think there are problems with this definition -- knowledge exists in minds, not in languages -- but it is certainly a reasonable starting point. Opening the essay with this definition, and using it to analyze the claims being made against the possibility of translation, would clarify and strengthen Fram-Cohen's case.

In this essay, I first consider Fram-Cohen's presentation of ideas that suggest translation is impossible, and then focus on how to extend her theory beyond conceptual knowledge by considering the role of the subject and the theory of illocutionary acts.

I am not a translator, and in fact am currently almost mono-lingual, having not used German -- the only language I've ever translated anything from -- in many years, and having recently used French only to read newspaper articles. As such, I am in the uncomfortable position of an ignorant amateur arguing with a professional in her own domain, but have chosen to throw caution to the winds and state my case as forcefully as possible, with the awareness that this may make me look foolish to more knowledgeable eyes.

Fram-Cohen's Critique

As Fram-Cohen's presentation stands, it isn't clear what the ultimate source of scepticism about the possibility of translation is. Although she suggests its roots lie in Kant's idealism, it's clear that a great deal has to be done to take us from Kant to Cassirer. On Kant's view, the common (distorting) nature of human consciousness would not prevent translation from occurring, because the conceptual schemes of all humans fail to connect to reality in the same way.

If we were all color-blind, this wouldn't present translators with a problem -- only if there was a language of the color-blind that didn't include any color terms would there be any difficulty.

So the possibility of translation does not depend on objective reality. If humans are all by nature limited in the same way, as Kant claimed, and given certain hard-wired predilections as Chomsky at various times has claimed, then translation would still be possible based on the common limitations of our subjective reality. I'm not defending this notion, but pointing out that an external objective reality is a sufficient condition for the possibility of translation, not an necessary one. So Fram-Cohen's claim, "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" requires further justification.

Fram-Cohen gives a rough sketch of beliefs that might be implicated in claims that translation is impossible, starting with Kant and moving through the work of Sapir, Worf and Von Humbolt. But it's clear there's something more going on here than just Kantian idealism, and it isn't clear what that is. Given the outlandishness of the theories that claim translation is impossible one suspects that they are motivated by something other than sound reasoning.

The Sapir-Worf thesis is just false. The claim that Fram-Cohen cites: "no individual is free to describe nature with absolute impartiality but is constrained to certain modes of interpretation" does not follow from the preceding statements without the implicit -- and clearly false -- premise that no such thing as language creation ever takes place. Yet it does take place all the time, particularly in the minds of children, but also in the minds of the more playful adults amongst us.

From the creation of modern Hebrew to the works of James Joyce to Dirac's invention of a new algebra to describe the quantum world, language creation goes on all the time.

Von Humbolt is even less creditable than Sapir-Worf. Consider his claim, "Each language draws a magic circle round the people to whom it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape." What then, is learning another language, or creating a new one, except exactly such an escape? One might claim that each new language is just another prison, but if one can build and rebuild one's prison at a whim, the question arises, "To what in reality does PRISON refer?"

And this is indeed what we should be asking. By what standard does a language constitute a prison or an inescapable magic circle? It is with the answer to this question that I think the influence of Kantian philosophy is more strongly felt.

Clearly the existence in antiquity of multiple translations of the same work indicates that there has always been an issue with the notion that there is a single translation that is "right" while all others are, to some extent or other, flawed. Any theory of translation needs to account for this reality.

One motivation behind critiques of the possibility of translation could therefore be that because no translation is ever "perfect", no translation is possible. This is the same as the argument -- due in various guises to Plato, Descartes and Kant -- that because we don't know reality diaphanously, as it "really is", but rather filtered through the necessary constraints and conditions of consciousness and perception, then we don't know it at all,

This error has been dealt with at length elsewhere, notably in David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses, and I believe his analysis holds in this case.

In brief: only if your standard is Platonic perfection is it possible to pass from the question of "the reliability of translation" to "the impossibility of translation". Everyone agrees that the poor, "imperfect" translations are possible. The question is whether "perfect" translations are possible, and that in turn depends on what you consider perfection. If translating every single nuance of a work transparently, diaphanously, is the standard, then obviously it's impossible to translate perfectly, and if only the Platonic Form of Translation is acceptably designated by "translation" then we might say "translation is impossible."

This is why setting out a rational standard of translation is necessary, and it would have been nice to see that standard come first, and the applied to the various claims made by other theorists.

Extending Fram-Cohen's Theory

Fram-Cohen's definition of translation entails a standard of translation, and it's one that's worth debating and considering. Translations of artistic works perhaps require some additional standard or standards. The purpose of art is much more than just communication of concepts.

Consider an extreme example: translating poetry. This is an instance where we don't have to change languages to see that there's more to it than conceptual knowledge, and more to it than can be properly handled by footnotes. For example:

Then he told me quietly there was a river running between where the sun sets and where the sun rises.
has the same conceptual content as:
And he whispered, 'There a river lies
Between the dusk and dawning skies'
but I don't think the former is a good translation of the latter.

Descriptive phrases and neologisms are valuable, but they rarely capture the poetry of the original, and this is what at least some people who argue against the possibility of translation are worried about. Once we've dismissed the ridiculous Sapir-Worf-like notions, we are still left with the problems of cultural reference and poetry.

While it's true that "idioms and sound effects have no conceptual function on their own" it's not true that conceptual function is the only function that matters. Furthermore, idiom often does have conceptual function. The expression "keep your shirt on" tells us something about the social class and cultural background of the speaker and the person being addressed, and the relationship between them. And as it happens, it does have to do with taking your shirt off -- it refers to the practice of fighters stripping to the waist before having at it.

Fram-Cohen is clearly on the right track -- her definition of translation is a good starting point, but I think more attention needs to be paid to the role of the translator as artist, as creator of a derivative but independent work, when translating all but the driest prose. I think that the analysis of translation in terms of Austin's illocutionary acts as described by Searle is a fruitful avenue to proceed along in furthering Fram-Cohen's work, and I will now proceed to do so.

Illocutionary Act
The minimal complete unit of meaning in human communication
Searle emphasizes that illocutionary acts are intentional, and that meaning itself is intentional. The role of intention in the meaning of propositions has been touched on by Ray in her work on identity, emphasizing that the intentional context of the speaker is critical to the meaning of any propositions uttered. For a translator to translate, this intentional context must be taken into account -- otherwise the symbols being operated on don't mean anything. In the absence of a knowing subject, there is no meaning because there is no intentional context.

The case of Moses' horns, which Fram-Cohen cites is a good example of this: there are two intentional contexts, one that includes an awareness of the ambiguity in ancient Hebrew, one that does not. In the absence of one or the other of those contexts, the sentence is untranslatable, and in the absence of the correct context it is not translatable correctly. The transformation rules between languages are no more free of intentional context than the transformation rules within languages.

In the absence of intentional contexts simple substitutions within a language cause problems. Russell's example in "On Denoting" is an example of this: George III is wondering if Scott wrote Waverley and if we substitute "the author of Waverley" for "Scott" (surely a legal substitution, as the two are known to be identical) then we are left with George III wondering if the author of Waverley wrote Waverley. Ray's solution to this puzzle is to point out that it is we who are able to substitute "the author of Waverley" for "Scott" -- George obviously can't, or he wouldn't be wondering. The puzzle depends on us smuggling our intentional context into George's.

Therefore, for a translator to operate on the conceptual knowledge a work represents, he or she must attend to the intentional context of the author. It is certainly, as Fram-Cohen argues, the fact that there is a common reality (however constituted) that makes both communication and translation possible. What is interesting is the relation between intentionality and language. Searle (p. 139) argues:

So at bottom, appropriately understood, the three questions, "What is meaning?" "How does language relate to reality?" and "What is the nature of the illocutionary act?" are the same question. As we will see, all three questions are concerned with how the mind imposes intentionality on sounds and marks, thereby conferring meanings upon them and, in so doing, relating them to reality.
Searle (p. 140) further points out, in full agreement with and quite independently of Ray, that while words and sentences have meanings assigned to them by the conventions of the language, "what the speaker means by the utterance of the sentence is, within certain limits, entirely a matter of his or her intentions" (emphasis in original). He argues that this "speaker meaning" is the primary form of linguistic meaning, while "sentence meaning" is secondary to it.

"Meaning" in this sense is (Searle p. 141) a kind of "derived intentionality" in which the internal intentionality of a speaker's thought is encoded in sounds or marks. Without going into the details of how Searle thinks this is done -- which tie the whole process to objective reality, as it happens -- it's clear that the reader's job is to analyze those sounds or marks and infer the speaker's internal intentionality, belief or state of mind that prompted the utterance.

The translator's job, in this context, is to act as one more causal link in that chain of intentionality, one that preserves, as much as possible, the intentionality of the utterer as it is inferred by the mind of the hearer. Translation is on this view very closely linked to the ordinary business of communication.

The conceptual knowledge encoded in an utterance is clearly an important part of the speaker's intent in the vast majority of cases, which is presumably why Fram-Cohen made it central to her definition. But it isn't the whole intent in most cases. On this basis, I offer an alternative definition:

The transfer of an author's intentionality as encoded in one language to an encoding in another language, which includes but is not limited to the conceptual knowledge the author's intentionality contains.

In the cases of translation of technical documents and most prose, this definition becomes identical to Fram-Cohen's. In the case of more nuanced prose and poetry, it continues to offer guidance to the translator, and supports the fact that translation is possible. Not only do we live in a common, objective reality, we are also creatures of a particular kind, and while many aspects of other cultures may be alien to us, we can never be wholly alien to each other.

With regard to poetry, and particularly poetic imagery, this definition allows considerable license, to the extent that I think the fragment of the Iliad Fram-Cohen cites, that refers anachronistically to "Royals", constitutes an acceptable translation. Homer's intention was to bring a particular image into the reader's mind, and by using similies we are familiar with the translator has succeeded in doing so admirably. An argument could be made that such anachronisms are obtrusive, unnecessary and distracting, and I will grant that argument for a certain audience. For an audience familiar with the names of sails on Nelson's warships however, the anachronism is effective, although the translation is certainly less "true" than one more tightly restricted to references current to Homer's time and place.

My intent in the preceding paragraph in ignoring the equally gross anachronism of the reference to Cape Kennedy is just to point out the importance of the reader's context to what constitutes a good translation. I know something about the history of sail, and for me the image of royals, which are amongst the highest sails on a ship-rigged vessel, is as evocative as the image of rockets rising at Cape Kennedy. It is also equally anachronistic -- ships didn't fly royals until the early 1700's. How jarring or obtrusive an anachronism is depends on the knowledge of the reader, and for a given audience a highly anachronistic translation may well serve as effective medium for transferring the author's intentionality.

An extreme example of this sort of difficulty was faced by Michael Kandel in his translation of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad in which Turl the Constructor is challenged to build a mechanical poet, which is subsequently instructed to write a poem that is poignant, witty and tragic with every word beginning with the letter "S". In the original Polish, the poem -- and the initial letter -- were quite different from Kandel's English version. But his poem effectively transferred the intentionality of the author into the minds of English speakers. One can argue about how often such extreme measures are justified -- clearly in most translations between modern languages they are not -- but I believe they still constitute good translations.


I have argued for a broader definition of translation than Fram-Cohen has presented, using her analysis as a starting point, augmented by Ray's focus on intentional contexts and Searle's presentation of Austin's theory of illocutionary acts. I am less concerned with why people might believe translation is impossible than I am with understanding what translation is. In particular, by bringing translation under the wing of Searle's theory, I have shown that it is not in principle different from any other act of communication, and on this basis I claim that to argue translation is impossible is to argue that communication itself is impossible.

Searle's approach holds that communication is grounded in references to objective reality, which is consistent with Fram-Cohen's approach to translation, and so the two join cleanly together. My definition suggests a broader standard for what constitutes a good translation than what Fram-Cohen might find acceptable, particularly in the realm of poetry. Where the two approaches overlap, however, in the realm of technical documents and most prose, where conceptual knowledge dominates the content, the two approaches are identical.

1 Kelley, D., The Evidence of the Senses: a Realist Theory of Perception, (Louisiana State University Press, London, 1986), ISBN 0-8071-1476-6, especially pp. 37 - 43

2 Searle, John R., Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World (Basic Books, NY, 1998), ISBN 0-465-04521-9, Chapter 6

3 Ray, Carolyn, Identity and Universals: A Conceptualist Approach to Logical, Metaphysical and Epistemological Problems of Contemporary Identity Theory, Chapter 6, Enlightenment

4 Strangely, the horns of Moses also turn up in the Book of Mormon, which was purportedly dictated to Joseph Smith by God. This suggests that God is on the side of Michelangelo in this case.