Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!

Dennis: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monty Python inadvertently touched on a major debate among translation theorists, as raised in Umberto Eco’s thought-provoking and entertaining book Mouse or Rat. Eco makes much of his guilt at having to criticise Roman Jakobson for potentially causing ‘confusion’ in his 1959 article ‘On Linguistic Aspects of Translation’ (a piece notable enough to merit its own Wikipedia article).

According to Jakobson, any particular word may be interpreted, or translated, in three ways:

  • intralinguistic translation, or expressing the same idea using different words from the same language. This is what I am doing here with respect to both Eco and Jakobson with the aim of trying to clarify what I understand by it. It is also what ‘Dennis’ is doing in the quotation above, though in the service of ridicule (and of humour).
  • interlinguistic translation, what we normally think of when the word ‘translation’ is used and what Jakobson refers to as ‘translation proper’, i.e. rendering propositions expressed in one language in another language
  • intersemiotic translation (also transmutation), the translation from one semiotic system to another, e.g. making a film version of a novel or similar.

The essential problem here for Eco is the use of the term ‘translation’ for things that we are not accustomed to refer to as translation. It’s not ‘translation’ in the normal sense to paraphrase ‘the Lady of the Lake’ as a ‘strange woman lying in a pond’ and indeed the comedy is reliant on the paraphrase itself (‘the Lady of the Lake’ being a set phrase and thus not normally amenable to paraphrase). And it’s not ‘translation’ to turn Dr. Zhivago from a rather long book into a rather long film. Essentially, for Eco, we need to separate ‘interpretation’ and ‘translation’; although interpretation is vital to translation, it is fundamentally a different thing. This is Eco’s contribution to an ongoing debate involving figures including George Steiner, who sides with Jakobson:

Translation is formally and pragmatically implicit in every act of communication, in the emission and reception of each and every mode of meaning, be it in the widest semiotic sense or in the more specifically verbal exchanges. To understand is to decipher. To hear significance is to translate.

Steiner, After Babel (3rd edn.): xii

To demonstrate the ‘confusion’ Jakobson may have been responsible for, Eco uses his own paraphrasing/re-wording techniques (supposedly following a logic set up by Peirce’s definition of interpretation) on the famous scene from Hamlet where Polonius is mistaken for a rat with unfortunate consequences. In this way the following scene…

Gertrude: What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!

Polonius (behind): What, ho! Help, help, help!

Hamlet (drawing): How now! A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!

Polonius: O, I am slain!

… becomes…

Gertrude: What wilt thou make or cause, to perform or carry out? Thou wilt not kill me unlawfully and with malice? Assistance, assistance, ho!

Polonius: What, ho! Assistance, assistance, assistance!

Hamlet: How now! Any of several kinds of black, brown or grey, long-tailed rodents, resembling, but larger than, the mouse? No longer living, for a coin of silver, no longer living!

Polonius: O, I am killed by violence!

Now, we can see why Eco might have chosen to illustrate the problems with Jakobson’s position in this way; this is after all pretty funny and, at first glance, makes his point that rewording doesn’t work. But does it prove that rewording is not translation? I don’t think so. It just shows that you can make Shakespeare seem rather comical. There are, too, (at least) three major problems with this (means of making the) argument.

First of all, Eco here ignores communicative reality: what communicative purpose would lead someone to substitute definitions/synonyms for the words in this way? If you’re going to refute an argument with a linguistic example, at least make it realistic; this rewording of Hamlet is more like one of those mindless paraphrasing tools that students sometimes use (see e.g. https://paraphrasing-tool.com/). Why not use the exchange between King Arthur and Dennis reproduced above? Dennis rewords Arthur’s story, but with a specific aim in mind, i.e. to defamiliarise it and make it seem ridiculous. No one would think of this as a ‘translation’ in the normal sense.

Secondly, Eco argument rests on there being a clear distinction between ‘translation proper’ and ‘rewording’. But, is this always the case? Perhaps not. A ‘language’ (or ‘code’) like English isn’t simply one stable phenomenon and varies in time, place, purpose in interesting ways; in certain cases, this may make a stretch of English incomprehensible to speakers not familiar with the variety used (i.e. it becomes like a different language). In such cases ‘intralingual’ and ‘interlingual’ blur somewhere in the middle. The translations of the Bible provide us with an example. I’m indebted here to examples provided in Guy Deutscher’s excellent ‘The Unfolding of Language’.

The Lord regretted having made humankind on the earth… So the Lord said: ‘I will wipe the human beings I have created off the face of the earth’ (English around 2000)

It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth… And the Lord said: ‘I will destroy man whom I haue created from the face of the earth’ (King James Bible, 1600-ish)

It forthou3t him he had made man in erthe. ‘I shal do awey’ he seith, ‘man, whom I made of nou3t, fro the face of the erthe’ (Late) Middle English (Wycliffe – around 1400)

Are these ‘translations proper’ or interlingual rewordings? It’s not entirely clear. This is a chronological example, but it wouldn’t be that hard to find examples of ‘translations’ across different geographical varieties of English (Geordie vs. Kerry English – they’re both ‘English’ and supposedly the same code) or even different registers (scientific discoveries are not reported the same way in newspapers as they are in research articles, and for good reason).

The third problem with Eco’s argument is that it’s not clear how carefully he’s read Jakobson’s article. After suggesting the three-way division of translation, Jakobson’s article goes on to explain how all these sorts of translation are doomed to failure. He is less interested in how translation is to be divided up as in how it is even possible in the first place.

Intralingual translation is problematic because there is pretty much no such thing as a true synonym, so there’s always some change in meaning (e.g. from ‘Lady of the Lake’ to a ‘strange woman lying in a pond’).

Interlingual translation is fraught with difficulty because signs have to be interpreted within their own linguistic system, where they may have rather different connotations, contents etc. One example from Jakobson is that the meaning of the word ‘cheese’ in English includes ‘cottage cheese’ but the Russian ‘equivalent’ сыр does not, meaning that translators of ‘cheese’ into Russian might have to indicate in some inelegant way that cottage cheese is included.

The meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into some further, alternative sign, especially a sign ‘in which it is more fully developed’

Peirce, in Jakobson 1959: 233

This may help us understand some of issues related to Nadsat and its translation. Alex often finds himself having to perform what is for him intralingual translation, i.e. when glossing his own terms for our benefit (e.g. Pete had a rooker (a hand, that is)), though for many of us this may count as interlingual translation. Translators try to recreate the effect of Nadsat in interlingual translations of the book, with interesting results (more on this soon). And of course we shouldn’t forget the intersemiotic translation involved in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but that’s the subject of a future post.

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