Friday, October 30, 2009

Ways of Translation: Part 3, Language as Transposition

Aristotle's game tends to be viewing Language as Proposition (or making the Greek logos naturally to be logic). Alexander the Great's project is using Language as Imposition.

Plato's and Socrates's concern has been Language as Transposition. And this is our concern in part 3 of a series on Ways of Translation.

For Plato, the issue was the Ideal, the truth or reality behind the logos. To remember, we might reread his parable of the cave in Book VII of The Republic.

For Socrates, the issue was the Dialectic, the means for getting closer to the Ideal behind language by electing to go through the logos. (Dia-lectic gets to our English words for "elect" and "select" and "dialect" and such). To overhear, we might listen to any of Plato's Dialogues or Dialectic Treatises in which he represents his teacher Socrates using this method of dialectic to question and requestion another person until that person arrives closer and closer to the Truth, to the Ideal behind the language.

For Plato's Socrates and for Plato himself, the goal was to get past dissoi logoi to the perfect pan-Hellene republic. Δισσοι Λόγοι / Dissoi Logoi / was not only a pluralistic book of pairs of contrastive statements of varieties of human behaviors but the book also represented the plethora of logos methodS that sophists, poets, epic story tellers, and rhetoricians were using to misguide Greek people. (We might read Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato to get a sense of just how upsetting these rhetoricS were to Plato and how important "dialectic" was to get through the noise of the logos of any given sophist. We might remember how Socrates, in Plato's Dialogue we call The Gorgias, engages in dialectic with the sophist named Gorgias; and how Socrates draws out of Gorgias, by Plato's neologism, the fact that Gorgias is a "rhetorician." We might recall how Aristotle, later, opens his treatise The Rhetoric by making the logical binary statement that "Rhetoric is the anti-strophos of dialectic." The sense of Socrates, of Plato, and even of Aristotle is that mere rhetoric and much sophistry and poetry -- as one mere logos or another -- will cloud reality.)

So we go back to listen to Gorgias (ironically not Plato's ideal 'Gorgias' in Plato's constructed Dialogue, "The Gorgias," in which Socrates is getting to the ideal truth about rhetoric). The Gorgias of our other histories has written a "Praise of Helen." It's a funny treatise in which the sophist author tries to argue that the beautiful Greek woman must be acquitted for her foreign sluttiness. Maybe she was persuaded by the Trojan logos, he suggests. Maybe she was taken by manly force, he adds. And he also suggests that maybe the gods got her. He suggests one more thing, but we might as well wait on that for another post on Language as Ap(p)osition. The difficulty for any reader is that Gorgias is playing with language in ways that cloud certainty, in ways that don't necessarily get to the definitive Truth behind all this language but in ways that use language nonetheless to make a funny argument. It's the language of relativists who slide down slippery ethical slopes, the language of pluralists who allow that anything goes.

So we fast forward to Jesus, and Mark's translation of his parable of the sower again, which some call the parable of the different soils. Eugene H. Peterson (in his The Message translation) renders the pertinent Greek sentences this way into English: "Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled among the weeds and nothing came of it." and "The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it." The Ideal lost, of course, is "the kingdom news" or "τὸν λόγον ἀκούοντες" / ton logon akountes / - the logos heard. Too much is crowding in on the Ideal Message in order to crowd it out.

So we fast forward a good bit more to our day, to hear literary critic George Steiner and to hear business professor and scholar Robert E. Quinn. The former says there's often in poetry reading a difficulty of modality. The reader, for example, expects one mode but encounters another. The reader wants to know what a particular line in a poem means but the reader is paying attention to the rhyme or to the visual imagery or to one thing or another thing when the poet might have been trying to use an allusion to something entirely different altogether. At this point in his discussion, Steiner mentions literary critic C. S. Lewis. Steiner doesn't say it, but I think Lewis gets to the issues of transposition (of one mode obscuring or choking out another) in his little essay called "Transposition." The whole idea behind transposition is that a message is first in one mode (say, a book like A Grief Observed or Surprised by Joy or a Pilgrim's Regress) and it's turned into another mode (say, a film like Shadowlands).

Quinn, in his survey of the literature on corporate and organizational change, says that there's the negotiating strategy. He also calls it the "win-win" strategy. The idea is that two people talk through what they want (say, a negotiation for a salary desired given the constraints of a company budget). There's a transaction, a trade-off, a move toward the Ideal for both parties. This, Quinn says in his book Change the World, is a strategy that's much less used and much more difficult to use than the "telling strategy" and the "forcing strategy" for change.

One way we might rephrase that is to say that Aristotle's logic and Alexander's force are much easier methods, generally, speaking than Plato's and Socrates's Ideal-seeking Dia-lectic method.

Or I might suggest that Language as Proposition and Language as Imposition is more "default" in our conceptions of language. Language as Transposition is a much richer, and a much riskier and more difficult way of thinking of Language. Noam Chomsky, for all of his revolutionizing of American linguistics, is not an easy one always to follow. But let's do. Remember how Chomsky borrowed a page from revolutionary Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (i.e., langue vs parole) to idealize Competence vs Performance? This is platonism, as Chomsky goes for the deep structure of Language (i.e., Competence) and views Language as the Truth behind utterances (i.e., Performance).

One doesn't need to be a Chomskyan linguist to view Language as Transposition. Revelance Theorists who are translators, for example, believe that the information conveyed in a message is the important thing, that the implicatures can and do create an efficiency of communication, that other things threaten to choke the process of getting to "the message."

Likewise, even blogger translators, such as Joel Hoffman and Wayne Leman, often seem to use the metaphor Language as Transposition. Hoffman has a wonderful chart at his blog that shows multiple translations surrounding the original meaning of a text as if threatening to misrepresent its deep real True (i.e., Ideal) meaning or to water it down or to choke it out.

Leman's Ideal is usually conceived on the other side of translation. In other words, he's concerned with Bible translation that, in English, sounds natural. By natural English, Leman means "English which is normally spoken or written by native speakers of English at any particular time in the history of the English language." Biblish and some poetry in English and English patterned after Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic syntax, in contrast, clouds the ideal English for Bible translation, according to Leman.

In both cases, Hoffman and Leman as translators view Language as Transposition. For behind any language is the original author's (or speaker's) intended meaning.

I'm out of time again. If there's a moment somewhere down the road, perhaps we can discuss together Language as A(p)position. Until then, this is part 3 and parts 1 and 2 are here and here.

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