On Linguistic Aspects of Translation by Roman Jakobson

Another fundamental paper in the translation studies portal discussed here is Roman Jakobson’s paper entitled On On Linguistic Aspects of Translation. In this article, I actually summarized and organized this paper to be read by a student of translation studies. As a student of translation or anyone who is interested in academic translation training and theories of translation, this paper is considered one of the most important and fundamental papers to be studied and is suggested to be read early on the way of becoming an academic translator.

As a matter of fact, this paper is mentioned in many translation books like introducing translation studies by Jeremy Munday and also Translation: an advanced resource book. So here a comprehensive summary of this paper is given as first steps in the journey of anyone who is interested in studying translation in an academic fashion. The original paper to be summarized is extracted from Lawrence Venuti’s The Translation Studies Reader (2012 Version), another fundamental book which “provides a definitive survey of the most important and influential developments in translation theory and research” (Source). Please note that any text inside brackets are comments and further explanations provided by myself and is not found in the original source.

Introducing Translation Studies - On Linguistic Aspects of Translation by Roman Jakobson

Summary of On Linguistic Aspects of Translation

No one can understand the word “cheese” unless he has an acquaintance with the meaning assigned to this word in the lexical code of English. The meaning of the words “cheese,” “apple,” “nectar,” “acquaintance,” “but,” “mere,” and of any word or phrase whatsoever is definitely a linguistic or a semiotic fact. There is no signatum (signified) without signum (sign). [understand this quote as “There are no entities of a category if the category is not named”. Here is a more concrete example: Gouda, Cheddar, and Swiss are all types of cheese. Without the word cheese, or a description thereof, the group doesn’t exist]. For us, the meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into some further, alternative sign, especially a sign “in which it is more fully developed”. We distinguish three ways of interpreting a verbal sign:

  1. Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.
  2. Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language. [other theorists may know this as a ‘version’. notably the replacement of lexical items by other equivalent items that are considered more suited to the target audience.]
  3. Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems.

On the level of interlingual translation, there is ordinarily no full equivalence between code-units. translation from one language into another substitutes messages in one language not for separate code-units but for entire messages in some other language. Such a translation is a reported speech; the translator recodes and transmits a message received from another source. Thus, translation involves two equivalent messages in two different codes.

Equivalence in difference is the cardinal problem of language and the pivotal concern of linguistics.

A faculty of speaking a given language implies a faculty of talking about this language. Such a “metalinguistic[1]” operation permits revision and redefinition of the vocabulary used. The complementarity of both levels—objectlanguage and metalanguage—was brought out by Niels Bohr: all well-defined experimental evidence must be expressed in ordinary language, “in which the practical use of every word stands in complementary relation to attempts of its strict definition.”

All cognitive experience and its classification are conveyable in any existing language. Whenever there is a deficiency, terminology may be qualified and amplified by loan-words or loan-translations, neologisms or semantic shifts, and finally, by circumlocutions.

No lack of grammatical device in the language translated into makes impossible a literal translation of the entire conceptual information contained in the original. If some grammatical category is absent in a given language, its meaning may be translated into this language by lexical means.

As Boas observed, the grammatical pattern of a language (as opposed to its lexical stock) determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed in the given language: “We have to choose between these aspects, and one or the other must be chosen.” Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey (due to compulsories in their verbal code). The richer the context, the smaller the loss of information.

language in its cognitive function is minimally dependent on the grammatical pattern because the definition of our experience stands in complementary relation to metalinguistic operations—the cognitive level of language not only admits but directly requires receding interpretation, i.e., translation. Any assumption of ineffable or untranslatable cognitive data would be a contradiction in terms. But in jest, dreams, magic, briefly, in what one would call everyday verbal mythology and in poetry above all, the grammatical categories carry a high semantic import. In these conditions, the question of translation becomes much more entangled and controversial. Especially in literature, Gender plays a huge role. Some words are grammatically feminine and others are masculine, and more interesting is the fact that these genders are different from language to language.  In poetry, verbal equations become a constructive principle of the text.

Phonemic similarity is sensed as a semantic relationship. The pun, or to use a more erudite, and perhaps more precise term—paronomasia, reigns over poetic art, and whether its rule is absolute or limited, poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible. [Jakobson’s discussion on translation centers around certain key questions of linguistics, including equivalence between items in SL and TL and the notion of translatability].

So, this article was a summary of On Linguistic Aspects of Translation by Roman Jakobson from our introducing translation studies portal. We strongly suggest you to follow this portal and its study guide if you want to be an academic translator. You can also help us develope this portal faster than ever.

[1] Metalinguistics is the branch of linguistics that studies language and its relationship to other cultural behaviors. It is the study of dialogue relationships between units of speech communication as manifestations and enactments of co-existence.

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This article is a part of a series we started on Introducing Translation Studies by Jeremy Munday. For more summaries and more elaborations on subjects of this book, please refer to the portal.

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