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Translation is a necessary impossibility


The general linguistic enterprise describing how granular or 'phonemic' attributes of language may be parsed into phonological types, and further, be fully describable in the intersection between phonological and lexicogrammatical matters, is usefully discussed by Jakobson (1961), and the appeal of such scientific and mathematico-semiotic reductions of language continues in the biologistic, Universal Grammar prescriptions of Chomsky.   If such philosophical abstractions generally do not impinge on the work of the professional translator, these abstractions represent descriptions of equivalence between mathematical information and language, as well as biology and language. Concerns with introducing objectivity to descriptions of language, and the innate difficulties of doing so, have affected most theories of language, including the theoretical implications of translation work.

Baker (1992) offers a more detailed list of conditions upon which the concept of equivalence can be defined, and uses the concept of equivalence in a salutary manner "for the sake of convenience - because most translators are used to it rather than because it has any theoretical status" (Baker 1992:5-6). The conditions where non-equivalence transpires occur widely, in culture-specific concepts, concept not lexicalised in the TL, semantic complexity in the SL, different qualitative distinctions of meaning in the SL and TL, and the use of loan words in the SL text, among others. These conditions are many and varied, and Baker notes the many strategies used by professional translators to deal with such examples of non-equivalence (Baker 1992: 21-42). Baker's discussion of non-equivalence also includes the grammatical and textual, the latter including thematic structure and cohesion. The discussion, if it is not arduous, is long and ranging, and finishes with a discussion of 'pragmatic equivalence' (Baker 1992: 217-260). In this final section, Baker adroitly notes how many writers deliberately deviate from normal patternings of language, since writers and translators "often appeal to their readers to modify their expectation if such modifications are required in a given context" (Baker 1992: 251). As such, deviations are well-motivated, and the translator must usually "enlarge the shared context of writer and reader" (Baker 1992: 251, italics mine). Here Baker alludes to translation as a process which now does not merely 'carry over' meaning between the SL and TL, but creates shared contexts, and perhaps new equivalences, between two languages which are being shared in the translation. Baker discusses ideas  such as implicature and texture, in order to both describe, warn and encourage the expected professional translator to be aware a cohesive and coherent text for the TL audience occurs in a specific cultural context with illimitable differences from the culture of the SL text. Baker's encouragement is clearly to engage in the most sensitive variety of dynamic equivalence, with cultural considerations unfolded as being hugely important. For the professional translator, this can only come with extended familiarity with both the language and culture of both the SL and TL texts - the last words of her book are almost an encouragement and admonition, asking the professional translator, "do you have to make adjustments to accommodate your target reader's cultural background?" (Baker 1992: 258) In other words, for Baker, any adherence to finding linguistic equivalency should be tempered with considerations of cultural sensitivity.
A more stringent objection to equivalence come from Snell-Hornby, who instead argues the concept of equivalence is always intrinsically problematic, presupposing "a degree of symmetry between languages which makes the postulated equivalence possible" (1988: 16). Snell-Hornby uses the term 'equivalence' as an example, and how the German Äquivalenz have, "on closer inspection subtle but crucial differences" (1988: 17). The concept of 'equivalence', precisely because it has been used "as a technical term in various exact science to denote a number of scientific phenomena or processes", as well as in mathematics, where it indicates a "relationship of absolute symmetry and equality involving guaranteed reversibility", has accrued the quality of signifying a fixed, symmetrical relation between two well-defined variables. However, Jakobson also contested and argued any such static quality in any one language, as well as between languages. Then equivalence for Snell-Hornby then becomes a "treacherous illusion" that should not have such a central place in translation studies (Snell-Hornby 1988: 17). In fact, Snell-Hornby historicises the more exuberant rise of a theory of equivalency with the "euphoria that hailed machine translation in the 1950s", and identifies the counter-argument and disputation of such a theory with Jakobson's seminal essay, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation (1959).

If equivalence is in fact useful to the professional translator as a rudimentary theorization of translation, most theories are simply oriented along some 'formal' versus 'dynamic' divide, with variations upon each, and then most variation on the 'dynamic' axis (Nida, Catford and House for instance). Jakobson instead generalizes dynamic equivalence over all language use. Since 'formal equivalence' conditions the translator to look for and expect a corresponding linguistic element in the TL for the SL, I have argued this has, and still can, serve a powerful political agenda. The 'gisting' function of MT may well serve as a contemporary reinvention of language policies serving older 'colonial' forms of inequality. Highly expanded and tempered dynamic theories of equivalence such as offered by Jakobson and Baker offer a more considered, nuanced and ethical approach to the demands of professional translation.

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