Now you can view this blog on your mobile phones! Give a try.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


(Class Presentation: 12 March, 2011)

Sundar Sarukkai, the author of Translating the World, was trained in physics and philosophy. Within his essay “Translation and Science”, Sarukkai reviews the domains of translation and science because, for him, the activity of science shows striking similarities with that of translation.

Sarukkai’s primary definition of translation is that of any activity undertaken in response to an original. According to Sarukkai, for Science, that original is the world; and for translation (in the ordinary sense), it is the source text. Sarukkai contends that while there are differences between what is normally called translation and what is called science, on the level of abstraction, however, the similarities between them are overwhelming. While classical theories of both claim that they are quintessentially non-interventionist, Sarukkai argues that in fact, ‘both’ are necessarily mediated interpretations. The entire essay seems to be drawing connections and similarities between the activities of science and of translation, implying that the activity of science ‘is’ a translation.

In the essay, Sarukkai studies language in relation to science and suggests that one useful theme in studying this relation is that of ‘translation’. He observes that the idea of translation has appeared sporadically in philosophy of science, but feels the scrutiny is severely inadequate. Even when it is studied, he claims, it is only the “naive view of translation” that is taken into consideration. Such an approach, he feels, does not do justice to the complexities inherent in translation. And it is by paying heed to these complexities in translation that will allow one to realise the intrinsic link between science and translation.

He observes that science harbours a suspicion towards language (thus favouring the language of mathematics and symbols as opposed to ordinary spoken/written language). Similarly, language too harbours a suspicion towards translation and this has allowed the view that translation is “essentially a secondary activity, derivative and dependent on the idea of an original text”. He highlights the commonality of the two domains in their “naive views”: the naive view of translation harbours the belief that translations only change the language of the text but continue to keep its ‘essence’ intact; the naive view of science harbours the illusion that it can “distill ideas outside the purview of language”, thereby objectively transcribing the world.

Sarukkai’s immediate concerns regarding scientific discourse and translation are: science discourse has engaged with translation predominantly on the basis of the naïve view of translation. Philosophical and literary considerations of translation have been absent in scientific discourse – surprising, since the discourse has moved from one language system to another as well as deals on the level of textuality too. Translation has been invoked in various other contexts of science, he admits, such as the ‘incommensurability thesis’ for example, but has been inadequately studied. So he hopes to highlight the common grounds scientific discourse and translation share so as to draw attention to their similarities and thereby open the realm of translation within the philosophy of sciences to much needed debate.

The similarities between scientific discourse and translation are overwhelming for a number of reasons for Sarukkai. They are listed below:

*If translators are readers of the source text they translate, scientists are readers of “the book of nature”, which they then translate.

*Both, scientific discourse and translation subscribe to the ‘naïve view’ – regarding the ‘essence’ that remains unchanging and that can be captured and transferred objectively.

*In the philosophy of science, the idea of translation is implicit – in the context of interpretation, science is seen as “reading the book of nature”.

*The notion of ‘original’ is important to both domains – science attempts to write the text of the ‘original’ world, and it is in response to this that categories like ‘verification’ and ‘approximation’ arise.

*Roman Jakobson’s tripartite classification of types of translation – intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic – can be applied within the context of scientific discourse.

Intralingual Translation: translation within the same language – when we use different words and phrases to communicate similar meanings. These synonyms/synonymous phrases, however, will face the problem of equivalence in meaning since they can only be ‘similar’ and never the ‘same’ in meaning.
In science, the problems associated with incommensurability thesis arise here. The thesis responds to the belief that theories in science are ‘built’ upon each other, thereby implying that the concepts and entities referred to in one theory remain the ‘same’ when used in another theory, although in a different context. Incommensurability about theories maintains that it will not be possible, in general, to translate a term from an old scientific theory to a new one (because of the changing historical and differing social contexts in which the words first gained currency), if by translation is meant the complete carryover of meaning in these terms.

Interlingual Translation: involves rewriting a text in one language into another, thus converting a text written in the source language (SL) to one written in the target language (TL).
In science, when scientific texts get translated from one language to another it is interlingual translation. Scientific discourse is increasingly written in the language of English only fairly recently, and in the past, seminal works have been written in various other languages – German, Russian, and French, to name a few. It is indeed remarkable, notes Sarukkai, that these diverse texts in different languages have been rewritten and expressed in one language, English, with scarcely any mention of the problems present in translating from one language into another. They open up obvious questions such as why should the problems of translation not be present in translating scientific texts from other languages to English? Are the problems of equivalence, faithfulness, communication of meaning and so on not present in these texts? Or is it that they exist but are seen to be unimportant in the context of science? If so, who makes this judgment, and why?

Intersemiotic Translation: a translation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems – for example, articulating emotion through writing and portraying that same emotion through acting on stage in theatre; it is a translation on the multiple levels of semiotic systems – from one semiotic system (writing/textual) into another (acting/theatrical).
In science, scientific texts are essentially multisemiotic in nature, continuously moving from symbols to natural language (ordinary language used to write scientific discourses) and vice versa. Sarukkai draws attention to the fact that in the case of mathematics, there is always the ‘presence’ of intersemiotic translation in the way we continuously interpolate from symbols to natural language. The semiotic system of mathematics does not derive any meaning without prior reference to natural language. A ‘+’ symbol can function as addition only if it is interpreted (through natural language) as the act of adding elements to arrive at an accrued number. In reading and writing the scientific text, Sarukkai maintains, there is always a movement from one semiotic system to another. There is no other mechanism, other than translation, Sarukkai affirms, that can effectively explain how it is possible for us to generate ‘coherent’ meaning of such texts. The use of diagrams, figures, tables, charts, and so on are typically constituents of the scientific discourse that relates scientific activity to the concerns of intersemiotic translation.

Note 1: The common feature here between scientific discourse and translation, in the context of Jakobson’s classification, is that they share the problem of ‘complete equivalence’ – which is never possible for any of these three types.

Note 2: ‘Original’ for translation studies is a primary impulse and refers to the source text; for Science, it is the world as presented to us – hence science is also a translation.

While these ideas of translation studies are clearly present in scientific discourse, their presence appears to have been ‘erased’ – But how?

Understanding how science erases the presence of translation in intralingual translation: in opposition to the incommensurability thesis, the words that refer to objects allow for a common reference in different theories; these seem to function as ‘names’, thereby erasing the problem of equivalence. In this way, ‘names’ (when they are treated like proper names) do not get questioned but rather get ‘carried forward’ without debate. An ‘atom’, therefore, will remain an ‘atom’ regardless of the contextual implications it has gathered from its inception to date.

Understanding how science erases the presence of translation in interlingual translation: diverse texts in different languages have been re-written in English, but somehow problems of translation never gain attention. One reason, according to Sarukkai, is the subordinate position that natural languages are assigned in scientific discourse, privileging the language of mathematics; ‘insubstantial’ content (natural languages) Vs. ‘essential’ content (mathematical language).

Understanding how science erases the presence of translation in intersemiotic translation: scientific texts, for Sarukkai, prefer to gloss over the issue of translation to present a ‘unified’ text, as if the problem of translation across different semiotic systems is absent. Hence the tables and charts and diagrams are chosen to be read in conjunction with the supporting natural language texts, as one text in its entirety, rather than scrutinized in isolation.

Note: All three ways of erasing translation debates from science shows the idea of ‘invariance’ and the ‘invariant core’ (the unchanging essence), which are also ideas present in translation studies.

*Scientific texts are written in natural and symbolic languages – and also are not one uniform genre as is portrayed. Translation studies shows how the intermarriage of different genres is problematic and this too exists in science discourse, even if not paid adequate attention to.

*Since most scientific texts read like prose (introduction, chapter divisions…), Sarukkai uses Lawrence Venuti’s arguments of “minor literature” and “authorship” to understand scientific discourse better, especially in terms of articulating the tensions in translation.
Minor Literature: when a dominant standard dialect minoritizes its variables such as group/regional dialects, jargons etc. and foreignises the heterogeneity in favor of a dominant homogeneity, it creates a sense of ‘foreign-ness’ out of the heterogeneous minority. Although this ‘foreign’ component is very much a part of the dominant unit, it gets lost in translation and goes unnoticed.
In scientific discourse, the subjugation of natural language (as sub-text) in favor of the dominant mathematical language (which the discourse claims is the language of nature) can be seen as the ‘minor’ literature; and goes unnoticed in the process of translating the world.
For Venuti: “Good translation is minoritizing: it releases the remainder by cultivating a heterogeneous discourse, opening up the standard dialect and literary canons to what is foreign to themselves, to the substandard and the marginal.”

Authorship: Venuti speaks of authorship and legitimizing the ‘original’ in translation studies through the source text’s (legitimate) association with the ‘original’ author. In comparison, the translation is illegitimate in that it has an illegitimate association with the original author through the translator.
In scientific discourse, Sarukkai points out, scientists are never the original authors. They can only write, rewrite, and translate the world as original. The first authorship, the one who holds copyrights over the translation, is the world. Scientific discourse only opens up the text of the world, one that is already ‘written’.

In this sense, scientific discourse is always derivative and always a translation. Therefore, it is a ‘pseudotranslation’ in that it abdicates responsibility, and also bestows an ability to say something on somebody else’s behalf.

*Finally, Sarukkai uses the concept of ‘dubbing’ to draw parallels between science and literary concerns of translation. Dubbing presupposes the idea of an original and implies a translation that retains the ‘essence’, suggesting that in visual media, language plays a secondary role in comparison to the visuals in that it uses lip synchronization (visual) to cover up the dubbing (language) aspect. Dubbing also implies ‘multi-layering’ of texts – the larger question is, do all layers get translated? Or only the parts dominantly held as relevant?
In Scientific discourse too we see these parallels drawn by Sarukkai. Natural language plays a secondary role; multi-layers are seen through the multi-semiotic nature of the discourse, and the movement from one semiotic system to another involves the process of dubbing. Labeling of diagrams, figures and tables, for example, is similar to the process of sub-titling. Just as language is changed but the visuals are retained in dubbing, mathematical equations are many times retained but the ‘language’ related to the specific problems is changed.

Thus, for Sarukkai, the task of reading of the world, as science undertakes, involves all these aspects of translation and needs to be studied in more detail to understand the sociological and philosophical nature of scientific discourse.

1 comment:

Anil Pinto said...

Absolutely, amazing work, Divya.