Hermeneutic Motion

Steiner proposes a fourfold method for transferring meaning suggesting that it begins with trust. In order for meaning to be transferred, we must blindly assume that there is “something” to be understood (ab initio). Steiner envisions the translation process to essentially fall beneath the parameters of communication from one person to another.

Considering Steiner’s model and his assumptions regarding translation, how might Steiner approach the issue of translation emotional concepts? How would he argue the difference between translating emotional concepts and emotional experience considering its cultural context? Are emotional concepts culturally specific?

How do we represent experience linguistically?

Perhaps one might suggest the use of “emotion words” to combat this issue but when broken down, such words are just mere labels attached to an entity. They are what the mind of the translator views as approximate.

Steiner chapter 5

To tell the truth, this chapter I liked more, because here he talks more concrete and I mostly agree with him. He starts with a concept of trust, but didn’t get what he means by this.

I agree when he says that “translator must gamble on the coherence, on the symbolic plenitude of the world”. You can’t avoid it. Another thing is “naturalisation” – ” no language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without risk of being transformed”. But it’s a tricky thing, because sometimes it depends on the text, reader preferences and you don’t need to tar for the target text, so be careful.

Also he’s saying about important problem “mirror”: when you translate and meantime you’re “drawning” the original text. So here comes one more idea of both books (translation and target) must balance. Its the the main thing I found for myself very interesting in the chapter, and only one question: what is the concept of trust here?

Chapter 4

In the chapter 4 Steiner speaks about lots of things: development of translation theories, true translation, problems of translation from on language to another, pro et contra of translation. As for me the chapter was quite hard to understand but the language is amazing. While reading it I start to ask several questions to myself:

  • Why he has only 4 periods of translation history, because it’s around 2000 years of people communication, it’s a huge time, why only 4?
  • The most important question for me is how can we translate without any losses of the meaning in the target language? I think it’s impossible to avoid any losses. And here we have 2 problems: translate “meaning” or “style”?
  • What is true translation? Does the translator have a certain principle or methods of translations or he’s doing it just how he “feels”? how do we translate, what process we have in our brain at that moment?
  • Another important question for me and probably for many authors in this field is the translation a new work, creativity or it’s simply translated book? I believe it’s something new.
  • And the last but not the least is why people start translating, how it became a global “movement”?

An Enquiry Concerning Human Communcation

I couldn’t help but be reminded, midway through the reading, of David Hume, who effectively argues against the validity of inductive logic. That is to say, he is able to make the claim that all ‘proven’ science is, in fact, not really proven at all. Just because something happened the same way the first ten times it is done, does not actually prove that it will perform the same way on the eleventh repetition. The first time I read the paper my mind was quite blown: it was a revelation to understand such a truth. And yet… science, the proving of facts through trial and observation, has moved right along and proven itself invaluable to humanity.

Steiner lists a number of different authors, translators, theorists and philosophers who have a rainbow of opinions on how relatively ‘possible’ translation actually is. A number of perfectly valid arguments against true translation as an achievable possibility are made very early in (western) human history and have never been disproved. Indeed, as Steiner highlights, a number of philosophers have even gone so far to disprove the validity of human communication all together – Socrates famously though the written word was the end of real thinking.

Yet, here we are, thousands of year later, reading and writing yet. The importance of the written word to human culture cannot possibly be overstated, and the value of translation has exponentially grown with it. Would modern society be richer without Homer? Would the English speaking world really be better off if nobody bothered to translate Kant, Goethe and all the rest because they just couldn’t capture the whole of it? Of course not. At some point the debate over a field’s legitimacy after it’s already proven its utility seems to devolve into a dog chasing its own tail. What does Steiner’s discourse really argue, besides that he’s a very clever man?

Kendall’s Question

Throughout Chapter 4, Steiner comments on the challenges of translation and reaching equivalence between the natures of the two languages. He introduces the notion that by attacking translation, one vaguely attacks the essence of language itself. The author rationalizes that no two people share the exact identical meaning for the same term, yet if they do, there is no way to establish this like comprehension. The chapter further discusses that not everything can be translated as a result of potential loss of context. I found this negative portrayal of translation to troubling as I continued throughout the reading. Should we choose to forgo the means of receiving text in our native language simply because we will never be able to achieve an equivalent meaning? Is desire to learn more about other cultures and groups of people not justification for wanting to attempt to translate? How are we to be educated individuals if we do not choose look past our ethnocentric views and obtain even a glimpse into the lives of people different from ourselves?

Steiner 4


Steiner’s work makes some interesting points both in favor of translation and against translation. He brings up an interesting concept relating to the life of speech or L’intraducibilita. This means that every speech-act is totally un-repeatable because time has passed. Thus, “to translate is to compound unrepeatability at second and third hand” (p.256). On the other hand, Steiner goes on to say that even in the arguments in favor of translation consist of their own barriers particularly with religion. On page 257 Steiner claims that “only translation has access” to the “more integral discourse…which wait between and behind the lines of the text”. Perhaps we can question whether or not this is really so. Does translation only have the power to access it? Are there absolutely no other ways to attain the desired understanding and meaning? If this is so, how is it possible or, is not truly possible, to completely translate something without losing certain aspects of the meaning its author has intended? It seems Steiner suggests that the true meaning and understanding of a phrase, word, expression, etc. underlies the translation process itself. This idea that Steiner points out almost parallels many semiotic theories which examine the semantic transfer from the original language to the targeted language.

Steiner Chapter 4 Thought Questions

Lawrence Humphrey “distinguished between major and trivial tongues according to history, philosophy, and letters which they record and express” (p. 277-278). He then claims that it is “solely between major languages that the process of translation is truly meaningful” (page 278). His work was with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. These seem like choices that highlight many of the major biblical and Old World civilizations. However, does he therefore claim that these three languages will remain the major languages throughout time? If language is based on social climate to understand the context of the work and thus to be able to then translate it, how can the major language not change throughout history?

Furthermore, how is translation possible if there is not a true conformity between thought and speech? If the full entity of thought is not completely and exactly captured in speech, we cannot hope to then translate the words without loosing some of the original meaning of the author.

Finally,  we do not know if there is any basic commonality of language, particularly in terms of human processing, and our models of learning and memory are inferred from incomplete knowledge. How then can we have a theory of translation if we do not know how we store, organize, or produce the different languages of an individual’s mind?

Steiner Chapter 4 The History of Translation

Breughel detail
The Tower of Babel, detail, Breughel

Steiner, Chapter 4

Claims of Theory Periods in translation

  • from classical times until 18th century – translation more a version in a new language and not a word for word translation but rather what is the gist of something and then re-express it in one’s own language. What are the assumptions behind such a theory of translation? Dryden, Horace, Cicero
  • Theoretical and hermeneutic inquiry—Translation set within the questions of theories of language and the mind—develops its own vocabulary and method. People writing about the hermeneutics of translation are also practitioners–Schleiermacher, Schlegel, Humboldt.
  • Machine translation – attempts to map relations between formal logic and models of linguistic transfer
  • We are still in the hermeneutic moment, because he claims of the discovery of Benjamin’s paper (1923) which appeals to a universal notion of language, revitalizing the arguments of the ChomskyistsWhat about the realm of World Literature?
  1. 251—Should there be any passage from one tongue to another? Religious and psychological doubts about this—Kabbalah, Kafka, can one utter the knowledge of God in a mortal tongue?

But ironically much of the need to translate has come from Christianity’s need to translate the Gospels. Language should not prevent you from salvation.

Translation also seen as the “intertraffick of the mind”—a language community wants to enrich itself from outside

  1. 262 Not everything can be translated. Theology and gnosis posit an upper limit—not everything can be translated now—there is no unwobbling pivot from which we can view the world and history

Registers of translation—common matter and recreative transfer from one literary philosophic or religious text to another

  1. Literal
  2. “faithful but autonomous restatement” (266)
  3. “imitation, recreation, variation, and interpretive parallel” (266)

Difference between Dolmetschen and Übersetzen

Dolmetschen- refers to interpretation using both literary and contextual views of a text to come up with a translation. Not just translating- interpreting.

Übersetzen- This refers to translation/translators. This focuses on finding word-to-word equivalencies.

Goethe’s three phases of translation

  1. 277  First order of translation acquaints the target culture with the foreign culture in the latter’s own terms. Imperceptible entry of the foreign into our domestic vocabulary—Luther and his stress on the everyday.

– This is done in the hopes that translated text will then translate into the foreigner’s lives.

  • Appropriation through the surrogate: native garb placed on foreign form – could this be a parody?

– This refers to new/translated ideas acting as replacements for old ones- one example being the teaching of Christianity to foreigners in terms of their own religious views.

  • Metamorphosis and entelechy will lead to a perfect identity between original and translation. The translator has to create a tertium datum.

-implies a full understanding of the meaning in a foreign text.

  • Jakobson—interlingual translation is a translation which is infinitely regresses/progressing
  • Transmutation is a recoding, a placing of one sign into another system—systems of signification- allows us to figure out the meaning of words in relation to things other than other words. Uses pictoral representations as a way of gaining more accuracy.
  • Can we theorize about translation? Can we produce models?
  1. 300 In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creatively counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community.”

– This addresses the idea that when removed from a native context, certain words are never the same. There are plenty of theories that attempt to reach a conclusion about which approach to translation is best, but if context is lost, meaning is damaged.

Steiner Chapter 4 Questions from your predecessors

  •  On one hand, I can potentially see the demise of words “when words shake off ‘the burden of having to mean’ and will be only themselves, blank and replete as stone.” On the other hand, these blank words can determine our thoughts as we fill in our own meanings around these words.  Realistically speaking, can they really exist in the long run?
  • Steiner speaks of translation being a useful process because of the fourth step of translation, reciprocity. He cites Hegel and Heidegger in arguing that by attempting to clarify the text’s essence, we are in fact enriching the meaning through repeated attempts of understanding. I have two issues with this. First of all, it would only enrich the meaning if you were aware of its original meaning. Thus, if you could only read the language it was translated into, it would make the meaning shallower instead of giving multiple routes of exploration into the text. This could be explained by the fact that he seems to promote a type of translation that can be truer to the heart of the text than the original. “Where it surpasses the original, the real translation infers that the source-text possesses potentialities, elemental reserves as yet unrealized by itself”(160). I also take issue with this answer however. Does this mean that the text takes on a life of symbols and meaning of its own? Is it a reflection of some purer question or answer that can be better refined through translation? With this answer, Steiner really does kill the author.
  • Steiner spends most of page 158 talking about translation as an act of violence, destruction and as he says “infection.” Yet can’t we also see the act of translation as one of creation, as a means of building new links and bridges between languages so that the more we translate the more we connect different cultures?  Rather than fearing that “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported” can’t we see ourselves as enriched and more connected to a linguistic system and thereby people different from our own?
  • “As he sets out, the translator must gamble on the coherence, on the symbolic plenitude of the world (p. 7).”  Language, like many other cultural fundamentals has been shaped and guided by the evolutionary “powers that be,” so to speak. Adaptively surviving to best fit the cultural environment, within which it is set or from which it emerged. While the language’s culture has also operated adaptively but in ways best-fitted to the culture’s surrounding ecological and civil environments. How do we as a cultural collective translate our external environments? How as individuals do we do this? It seems a difficult task, for the human self, to not project his or her notions, beliefs or one’s internal understanding–onto external phenomena. Humans have a strong tendency to be human-centric and anthropomorphize. In translation or cross-linguistic understanding, is it dangerous to be culture-centric or even narcissitic in projecting the “we” or the “I” familiar to the source text or of the interpreter’s/translator’s/reader’s language, endemic to his or her cultural habitat? And in regard to this, what do we make of those persons native to polyglot habitats?
  • Steiner says that genuine translation should aim to equalize; it should neither fall short of the original text, nor should it surpass it.   If no such perfect “double” exists, then what is more favorable? Possibly like Schleiermacher, I would argue the latter. However, in talking about enriching the source text via the target language, the notion of hierarchy of languages is back in play.
    Is it really possible to “know better that the author did” in translating a text? What would that involve?
  • Steiner brings up the analogy of translation with code-breaking, of “leaving the shell smashed and the vital layers stripped”.  The idea of translation as code-breaking is an interesting one, partly because it brings up the idea of language as a code.  As we’ve covered this idea a bit before (“Everyone who can understand me can go ahead”), I think it would be more interesting to consider how translation can both decode, and encode, a text.