Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lost in translation...

I was recently hired to do some freelance translating for a church. I have to translate the key points in a running curriculum. Each key point has a blank space or two in it for students to fill in as they listen to the sermon or complete a lesson. I discovered that while I could translate the words around the blank spaces, I couldn't form a proper English sentence without knowing what belongs in the blank space.

Prima facie I could directly translate the given Chinese phrases and just leave a suitable blank space in the English sentence. But I realized that the meaning of the answer could alter what I directly translated. For example, I initially translated one point as "The Great Commission is not only _______, but also _______." But then I realized the Chinese answer might be a verb or a noun, which would require a very different translation in each case. For example, if the answer were a noun, it might be, "The Great Commission is not only A DUTY, but also A PRIVILEGE." If it were a verb, the sentence might be, "The Great Commission means not only TEACHING but also LEARNING."

I explained this to someone in the church office: I have to know what the sentence means before I can translate what it says. This might seem like a trivial consideration, but I think it highlights some important truths in life. In language, semantics rules syntax; the meaning molds the matter. Or, in a more McLuhanesque way, "The message molds the medium." It should not be hard to discern that, given my broader interest in classical metaphysics, what I am getting at is that translation bespeaks another instance of hylomorphism. Nothing about the particular syntactic elements (matter) of the sentence I was trying to translate could, of itself, manifest the intended meaning. Rather, I had to know what the sentence was "getting at," what its "point" was, in order to modulate the syntax and diction correctly. Thus, the formal "end" of the sentence controlled the material mechanics of the sentence. Indeed, a comical or ironic meaning could very well distort an accepted lexical usage, in which case the intended meaning could radically redefine the strict lexical and syntactic "rules." Thus is why it is significant that I invoked McLuhan: he was a committed Thomist, though few people know it.

The upshot of this meditation is that in so far as language is teleological, and in so far as language is the tool whereby we express ourselves in truth, self-expression is inherently teleological. The proper end of speech is expression of thought (or at least feeling) and the proper end of thought is truth (as the proper end of feeling is goodness and beauty qua two convertible forms of truth).

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