Continuing Contributions to Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 2 Contents Graphophonetics—The Science of Transcription and Personality—Þrúðr Óðinsmeyjar

Is Translation Possible?
The Answer Rhymes with Noh1

Prof. Trent Slater
Professor of Unproveable Linguistics Literature

While translation studies continues to grow as a field, with benefits being felt not only in applied linguistics2 but also in the world-at-large,3 one obvious fact continues to be overlooked. Scholars who pore over the results of the process called “translation” omit to tell their readers of the theoretical questioning of the very object of their study. Put another way, while everyone is busy examining “translations,” no one bothers to ask whether translation is actually possible.

The question was first suggested to me by my good colleague, Dr Tapir-Wolf, of the University of Hunkachunkaessayfodder. His hypothesis, translated from the original language of Hotchili, was as follows:

Since different languages use different words to describe things, they must be describing different things. The world I perceive will therefore differ from the world you perceive. Since we inhabit different, mutually exclusive worlds, communication between them is impossible.4

In order to unpack this convincing statement we must provide concrete examples. After all, we do not want to find ourselves in the place where we have a theory which is not backed up with firm, authoritative evidence.5

Let us begin then with a well-known example. In English, we often separate out the name of an animal from the name of the meat derived from it. Hence, while farmers raise “pigs,” we eat “pork, bacon, sausages and scratchings.” Similarly, while a Scottish farmer may own a “sheep,” he will make “mutton” pies. The latter distinction is not present in French. In France, farmers both raise and eat “moutons.” We can represent this distinction diagrammatically as follows.

 State      English      French 
    Animal      Sheep      Mouton    
 Meat   Mutton 

It is evident then that English speakers inhabit a world where sheep graze on grass and mutton is served in pies. French speakers therefore inhabit a world where “moutons” graze on grass and are also served in pies. These two positions are irreconcilable and thus, translation between the two is impossible. To posit “sheep” as a translation of “mouton” would impose a distinction which is nonexistent in the source language. Similarly, to posit “mouton” as a translation of “mutton” would mean ignoring the distinction made in English.

This problem has concerned translators for years. German scholar, D. Mann, for example, stated that “the problem of the non-isomorphicity of languages is indeed a great one.”6 Field workers have sought a solution to this for years without success.7 However, given that it is not in their interests to make this fact known, a wide variety of strategies8 have been adopted to try and hide the truth.

The first strategy is the most cunning. This involves the creation, maintenance and publication of hundreds of spurious “dictionaries” and “word lists” each year. By this philological slight of hand, “equivalence” is created between the lexical stores of two or more languages. Thus, if we search for the French word “mouton” in one of these lists, we are very likely to find a forced equivalence with the words “sheep” and “mutton.” The very fact that two “equivalents” are posited for a single word should be enough to dissuade this practice, but sadly it is not.

The problems associated with this strategy cause workers to adopt an alternative strategy, that of displacement. In this strategy the goal of translation shifts from being the creation of equivalence (however artificial) to the creation of a new document to serve some purpose. It is this pseudo-pragmatic parabolic pretence that is used as the justification of skopos theory: the theory that holds that translation is not primarily linguistic but goal-oriented. Thus, rather than translators being paid to find a linguistic equivalent, which is impossible, they are paid to prepare a text based on the source text which fulfills the purpose given by the client or end user.

Obviously, this reduces translation to a mere profession. It also extends the limits of translation so far as to allow definitions of the practice that are well outside the scope of this essay. Since skopos theory would insist that translation is possible by the mere fact that it exists, nothing more need to be said.

In conclusion, the evidence is cleartranslation is utterly impossible. It is unthinkable to reconcile divergent realities. If Inuit tribes have several words for snow and we only have one, it is clear that they experience more than one kind of snow placing their experience firmly outside the range of expression possible in English. To say otherwise is to extend the borders of translation outside of that which is proper and reasonable.9 The work of translators is therefore akin to that of Sisyphus and any victories merely Pyrrhic.

1 This article is to be made available in seventeen languages.
2 We now have far more conferences!
3 The airlines are now making more money from us as we travel to more conferences.
4 Tapir-Wolf (1987) personal communication, author’s translation.
5 Otherwise they might cut my funding.
6 D. Mann, “Hypotheses I made up” in Imaginary Linguistics 24:4 (2001). Article and title translated from German by the author.
7 Unless we count the production of millions of words of “translation” produced every year as proof.
8 i.e. More than one and more than I care to research.
9 Especially since such acts would problematise the hypothesis presented in this article.

Continuing Contributions to Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Graphophonetics—The Science of Transcription and Personality—Þrúðr Óðinsmeyjar
SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 2 Contents