index.html  Iconic Features of Translation

Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio
UniversitĂ  di Bari

Abstract: 1. Per invisibilia visibilia: iconicity and evasion in the relation among signs and texts 2. Metaphor as a translative-interpretive device 3. The paradox of translation: the same other 4. Metempsychosis and transmigration across texts in translation 5. Iconicity and translation in and across verbal and nonverbal sign systems 6. Signs, significance and translation 7. The paradox of language: translating the untranslatable.

From a semiotic perspective the text is made of sign material. This means to say that the text, any text whatsoever, is already a translation in itself, is already an interpretation. Translation across languages is a specific case of translation across sign systems, internally and externally to the same historical-natural language. But translation across languages is possible on the basis of language understood as a modeling device, an a priori and condition for verbal language, speech which, instead, arises originally for communication and thanks to the predominance of iconicity in the relation among signs. With reference to literary translation, if we understand ‘fidelity’ in terms of creativity and interpretation, and not just of imitation, repetition, reproduction of the same, of the ‘original’ text, a literal copy in another language, the translatant text must establish a relation of alterity with the text object of translation. The greater the distancing in terms of dialogic alterity between two texts, the greater is the possibility of creating an artistic reinterpretation through another sign interpretant in the potentially infinite semiosic chain of deferrals from one sign to the next, to which belongs the so-called ‘original.’ With reference to Charles S. Peirce’s general theory of signs, in particular his triad ‘Icon,’ ‘Index,’ and ‘Symbol,’ if a translation is to be successful in terms of creativity and interpretation, the relation between the text object of translation and the translatant text must be dominated by iconicity. A translation must be at once similar and dissimilar, the same other (see Petrilli 2001). This is the paradox of translation. Therefore a text is at once translatable and untranslatable. This is the paradox of language.



1. Per invisibilia visibilia: iconicity and evasion in the relation among signs and texts

Peirce analyzes the iconic sign in terms of ‘originality,’ the icon is an ‘originalian sign,’ which he also describes in terms of degeneracy, understood in a mathetical sense: “Sign degenerate in the greater degree is an Originalian Sign, or Icon, which is a sign whose significant virtue is due simply to its Quality”(CP 2.92). With reference to the Peircean triad distinguishing between firstness, secondness and thirdness, iconicity coincides with firstness:


An Icon is a Representamen whose Representative Quality is a Firstness of it as a First. That is, a quality that it has qua thing renders it fit to be a representamen. […] A sign by Firstness is an image of its object and, more strictly speaking, can only be an idea. For it must produce an Interpretant Idea; […] But most strictly speaking, even an idea, except in the sense of a possibility, or Firstness, cannot be an Icon. A possibility alone is an Icon purely by virtue of its quality; and its object can only be a Firstness. But a sign may be iconic, that is, may represent its object mainly by its similarity, no matter what its mode of being. If a substantive be wanted, an iconic representamen may be termed a hypoicon. Any material image, as a painting, is largely conventional in its mode of representation; but in itself, without legend or label it may be called a hypoicon. (CP 2.276)


The paradox of translation is the paradox of the text and of the sign. If the question of similarity is central to translation (an International Conference on “Similarity and Difference in Translation,” was organized in New York, in 2001, see Arduini and Hodgson 2004), it is not less important in relation to the text, itself an interpretant sign before becoming an interpreted sign of other interpretants in open ended reading and translating processes. The relation between the text and that to which it refers also presents itself in terms of similarity. This is particularly obvious in the case of literary texts, indeed art texts in general which are characterized by the relation of similarity among signs in terms of ‘picturing’ or ‘figuration,’ and not of mere imitation, representation, identification, or unification, that is, not as a mere copy in another language (see Petrilli and Ponzio 1999). Evoking Paul Klee, the text — literary, pictorial, artistic in general — does not picture or figure the visible (as instead occurs with theatrical texts in theatre performances or representations), but renders the invisible visible.

As Peirce also clearly demonstrated, meaning is not in the sign but in the relation among signs, whether the signs of a defined system, like those forming a code, a langue, or the signs of dynamic interpretive processes, which know no boundaries in the passage from one type of sign to another, from one sign system to another. The more interpretation is not mere repetition, literal translation, synonimic substitution, but rather reelaboration, explanatory and creative reformulation, interpetation-translation that takes a risk given that it does not appeal to a preestablished code with its alibis and guarantees, the higher the degree of iconicity, of firstness and originality regulating interpretive-translative processes, and the more these are capable of fully rendering the meaning of a sign. Identity of the sign calls for continuous displacement; each time the sign is interpreted-translated it becomes other, it is in fact another sign, which acts as an interpretant of the preceding sign. The sign’s identity is achieved through its metempsychoses, through its translations-transmigrations from one sign to another. Identification of a sign is not possible if not by exhibiting another sign. The previous sign can only be captured as the reflection in the mirror of another sign, and consists of all the deformations which such a play of mirrors involves. The text itself is a paradox; one of the “metempsychoses of the tortoise” (see below).

Per invisibilia visibilia, according to an ancient formula of the Fathers of the Church and the II Nicene Council. It ensues that the literary text, and more broadly the artistic text, can be characterized in terms of iconcity, that is, as an icon rather than as an idol (cf. Luciano Ponzio 2000, 2002). This means to say that, in so far as it is an icon, the artistic text gets free of the status of eidolon, that is, from the idolatory of a world that has been objectified and reified. The shift is from the idols of representation, where the subject and the object are frozen by the gaze and reified, to the icons of figuration, of picturing, according to a movement forward without return, a one way, open trajectory according to the logic of alterity. The eidolon (eido, video) gives itself in presence and is represented, it is captured by the gaze and possessed by the self, the subject. The idol offers itself directly to the gaze, satisfies the gaze, and the gaze, in turn, remains completely anchored to the visible, without ever attempting to surpass it or transcend it. The icon implies the capacity for transcendence, for surpassing boundaries of the visibile, of the obvious, of representation.

To translate across texts (whether this implies crossing over different historical natural languages or different languages within a single historical natural language) involves amplifying this movement, enhancing the iconic dimension of the relation among signs as signifying potential increases. This mean to enhance the relation of absolute otherness and creativity between the interpreted sign and the interpretant sign, between the text object of translation and the translatant text as we search for and invent new interpretants to develop the meaning of the preceding sign, of the preceding text, in terms adequate to our times, to a new signifying context. The meaning of a sign cannot be circumscribed to a certain type of sign or sign system, for example, a given historical-natural language. Meaning coincides with the interpretive trajectory, which knows no boundaries of a typological or systemic order. This is particularly obvious when translative processes involve interpretants, whether verbal or non-verbal, belonging to another language, to another linguistic-cultural modeling system.

Literary texts, artistic texts escape the bounds of the deductive model according to which a given trajectory starts from certain premises and leads to a given conclusion. Deductive logic is replaced by associative logic, which is the logic of translation understood as reading-writing, it involves active participation and answering comprehension at the highest degree. Here the relation between premises and conclusion is established through associations based on the translator’s personal memory, on the drift of his remembering, on his interests, curiosity, experiences, ability to “distract,” such that deferral from the interpreted sign to the interpretant sign is not decided or dominated by constriction, by deduction as in the indexical relation. Instead, where associative logic dominates, therefore the iconic dimenations of signs as understood by Peirce, the relation between interpreted and interpretant (see Petrilli 1998; Ponzio 1990) proceeds by hypothesis, it calls for reader initiative and inventiveness, and requires inferences mainly of the adductive type, that is, at high degrees of creativity and inventiveness. As Roland Barthes observed (1982, see also 1993-5), to read a literary writing means to re-write it. This process can only be enhanced in the shift across different historical-natural languages. Literary writing is characterized by dialogism and intertextuality, by the capacity to shift the signifier through semiosic fluxes that enhance signification in terms of significance. All this escapes literary criticism when it directs reader attention to what the author says and to the autobiographical, psychological, ideological, historico-social reasons for saying it.

Translation across languages further enhances the associative and personal character of the reading/writing (re-writing) process, and contributes to freeing the text from a single type or system of signs. This is the task of translation. Translative processes across languages evidence the dialogic intertextuality structural to texts, such that textual practice itself in a single language is already an exercise in translation.

Iconicity implies the otherness of absolute otherness, and not the relative otherness of indexicality. As in sacred icons, that which manifests itself cannot be possessed by the gaze, but rather resists it, resists being circumscribed and processed by the gaze. The icon maintains its otherness and resists converging with the directness of representation, with the boundaries of the object. Unlike the idol, the icon evades the logic of identity, of the totality and emerges in terms of figuration, picturing, presentation and not representation, presentation of an absence, of the absolute other. The icon establishes a relation of otherness with respect to the idols of contemporaneity, from which it takes its distances, but in terms of otherness and not of alternatives. As a great philosopher of our times, Emmanuel Levinas (see “La realité et son ombre,” 1948, now in Levinas 1994: 123-148) would say, the icon with respect to its object is its shadow, its double as Dostoevksy would say, its otherness, absolute otherness. As an icon of our times, the artistic text, whether a literary text or something else, does not belong to contemporaneity, but rather is transcendent with respect to contemporaneity, is not trapped within its boundaries.

Where iconicity dominates in the relation among signs, in figuration or picturing, in the secondary and complex text, the literary text or more generally the artistic text with respect to the primary, simple text, the text of everyday discourse genres, the relation between the sign and its object is indirect, mediated, distanced. Instead, in the case of idols the subject is mirrored without the possibility of withdrawing, without the possibility of a vision that is transgredient, transcendent with respect to representation (see Bakhtin 1979, It. trans.: 14). The icon transcends the gaze, the reified object, the visible. It does not picture the visible, but renders visible, renders the invisible visible, the object is revealed but not unveiled. The icon does not ensue from the gaze, but transcends the gaze, it ensues from that which provokes the gaze and renders it dissatisfied, calling for a vision that pushes beyond ordinary limits, in its continuous search for the other, challenged to overcome itself continuously, never to be trapped within the boundaries of the visible. The icon pictures irreducible otherness, the origin without the original, it presents the arché, orience firstness, as Peirce says (CP 2.86).

The literary text, indeed the artistic text in general searches for that which is other from the visible and which all the same gives itself in the visible: visibilia invisibilia as the Fathers of the Church stated when they began defending sacred icons from assimilation to idols (VIII century). The vision of secondary, complex texts, that is, of literary or artistic texts contrasts with the world of idols, the world of preestablished behaviours, of familiar objects and conventions. Recalling Edmund Husserl author of Experience and Judgement (see also Petrilli and Ponzio 2005b: 10.1), the artistic text operates an epoché with respect to the world as it is, the world that is already given, and returns to an original relation of the iconic type, dominated by firstness. As an expert in medieval semiotics (see Petrilli and Ponzio 1996), Peirce was aware of the distinction between image-icon and image-idol. This may well have influenced his final decision to introduce the term ‘icon’ in his most fundamental sign trichotomy (icons, indices, symbols, see CP 2.275), rather than the less satisfying terms ‘likeness,’ ‘copy,’ ‘image,’ ‘analogue.’



2. Metaphor as a translative-interpretive device


Iconicity, firstness, agapastic logic, involve the capacity to evade the totality, the identical, the same, thanks to the vocation for absolute otherness, for singularity, irreducible uniqueness. This is what makes of the metaphor, by contrast with the concept, a privileged place and an inexhaustible source for the generation and renewal of sense, an interpretive-translative device for the enhancement of sense across signs and sign systems. The capacity for signifying innovation, ‘linguistic creativity’ is the capacity to form new metaphorical associations and to invent new cognitive combinations, the capacity to figurate, picture, portray and present, as against the capacity for mere representation. Such a capacity is programmed by our primary modeling device, specifically by what Thomas A. Sebeok (1986) calls language understood as modeling, the preliminary basis of human symbolic behavior, and constitutive element of the primary, secondary and tertiary systems structural to human beings. This modeling device, this interpretive-translative device is regulated by the iconic relation and constitutes the very condition for all types of translative processes. The propensity for creativity, inventiveness, innovation, is not a prerogative of poets, scientists, and writers, but rather is available to each and every one of us in so far as we are capable of metaphorical associations, that is, of attempting associations among terms that are distant from each other in the great macro-web of human culture, and, extending our gaze beyond the sphere of human culture, in the great semio(bio)sphere at large. The capacity for innovation and linguistic creativity is further enhanced by translation processes across language, interlingual translative processes dominated by iconicity.

Similarity is structural to semiosis and, with specific reference to the human world, subtends perceptual and logico-cognitive processes, categorization, which makes the question, “What is similarity?” (Tabakowska 2003: 362), and crucial one. From our own perspective and with reference to human modeling, we may distinguish between types of similarity, based on distinguishing between two types of logic, what we may call ‘assemblative logic,’ on the one hand, and ‘elective logic,’ or ‘agapastic logic,’ on the other, to evoke Peirce (see CP 6.302-305; and Petrilli and Ponzio 2005b: 60-61). Similarity may be of the ‘assemblative’ type, on the one hand, or of the ‘elective’ type, that is, similarity by ‘attraction,’ by ‘affinity,’ on the other (see Ponzio 2007c). On this basis, we also distinguish the metaphor from the concept. Metaphor proceeds according to the logic of affinity, election, attraction, agapasm; instead, concept proceeds according to assemblative logic. Assemblative logic (concept) is oriented by the logic of identity, it proceeds by classifying entites according to genres; on the basis of assemblative logic individuals are assigned to the same class, group, gender, race, etc. In other words, assemblative logic identifies the individual according to a class, a group, and only recognizes individuals in so far as they are classifiable according to some form of identity logic. It does not recognize singularities, but rather absorbs them, homologates them in processes which assimilate that which cannot be assimilated, which translate that which cannot be translated. In contrast, similarity regulated by the logic of election, attraction, affinity (metaphor) proceeds on the basis of otherness and only recognizes singularities; the terms of the relation are left in their irreducible otherness, and recognized as unique. Metaphor is constructed upon the relation of similarity by election, attraction, affinity. In contrast with assemblative logic, similarity regulated by the logic of elective affinity, by attraction, by the logic of agapasm, regards that which gives itself as other, that which is different, refractory with respect to assemblative logic. According to elective logic, the terms of the relation remain reciprocally other, autrui, as Levinas would say, they are not indifferent to each other, differences are not cancelled. Elective similarity, or agapastic similarity, similarity by attraction, affinity, does not concern that which presents itself as the same, as belonging to the same category, as identical, as occurs instead in the case of assemblative likeness, where the terms of the relation identify with each other, are equaled to each other, converge: similarity by identity by contrast with similarity by alterity. Elective logic is dominated by ‘iconicity,’ by ‘firstness.’

The importance of metaphor has mostly been underestimated by traditional linguistics. On the contrary, in line with more recent developments in so-called ‘cognitive linguistics,’ Sebeok with Marcel Danesi, co-author of the monograph, The Forms of Meanings. Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis, published in 2000, invest the metaphor with a major role in human modeling, which also implies recognizing the major role of translative processes. Translation is an aspect of a ‘connective form’ theorized by Sebeok and Danesi, a special type of modeling strategy traditionally described as metaphorical. Metaphor is a central device in human reasoning which does not merely consist in representing objects but in picturing them, figurating them. With reference to Peirce’s semiotics, we have stated that the metaphor is an icon, what he also classifies as a hypoicon together with diagrams and images (CP 2.276-277), and what Sebeok and Danesi also describe as an ‘iconic metasign. The use of metaphor and imagery in verbal language presupposes the human modeling device and its syntactic articulation, that is, ‘language’ understood as modeling. Language as a modeling device relates iconically to the universe it models, as clearly emerges in the semiotic tradition delineated by Peirce, Jakobson and Sebeok (on modeling see, Danesi and Sebeok 2000; Petrilli and Ponzio 2005b, 2007; Ponzio 2006; Sebeok 1991, 2001).

On this aspect, an equally important connection, as evidenced above, may also be established with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, particularly his notion of ‘picturing.’ The iconic character of the proposition implies that picture theory is more complex than isomorphic similarity. To recall Ferruccio Rossi-Landi (1985, 1992) and his distinction between analogy, isomorphism and homology, the icon involves homological similarity which is structural and/or genetic. As a syntactical device, which does not represent reality directly, language properly speaking, as Sebeok claims (1991: 57-58), is a secondary modeling system. The relatively simple nonverbal models used by nonhuman animals and human infants are examples of primary modeling. Such models provide representations of ‘reality’ that are more or less pliable, and secure survival in one’s Umwelt. Associative-metaphorical processes are characteristic of thought and language, that is, of modeling specific to human beings. This means to say that translation processes dominated by iconicity play a fundamental role not only in traveling across different historical languages, but also as the very condition of such travels.


3. The paradox of translation: The same other

Now let us return to the paradox of translation. Just as we tend to believe that in a sequence that repeats itself that which comes first causes that which comes later, as observed by David Hume, and that these two terms are connected by a relation of necessity, in the same way we tend to believe that the order of a text is necessary and unchangeable, especially when we are familiar with the text, when we practice the text according to given frames and habits. This line of thought may lead one to the conclusion that any change in a text is a sacrilege. The text can only be that text, therefore its translation — any form of translation — in the last analysis is a fake.

Let us take the case of a reader in the habit of reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in Italian. Inferno can only begin with the line “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” and variants are not appreciated — not only in the sense of transposition and transferral into another language, but even in the form of paraphrase in the same language. On the contrary, for a reader unfamiliar with ancient Greek, the Odyssey is available in numerous different variants, none of which are referred to an original as the criterion for evaluating fidelity – and yet we are discussing translations. Nor does it make any difference whether these variants are in prose or in verse. Consider the Homeric texts. In Italy, Vincenzo Monti’s translation of the Iliad carries out the role of original, especially for those whom encountered this translation for the first time during early school days and have continued reading it, to the point of not wanting to recognize any other version that is not Monti’s. And yet, on Ugo Foscolo’s account, Monti was not worth much as a scholar of ancient Greek! Indeed, it seems that his translation derives from other translations, rather than from the original. Foscolo apostrophizes Monti as the “Traduttor dei traduttor d’Omero.”

Evoking Zeno’s riddle about Achilles and the tortoise, let us ask the following question (Achilles can never overtake the tortoise because the tortoise has always advanced beyond the point where it first was when Achilles reaches that point): is swift-footed Achilles (who can never reach the slow tortoise) similar to a skillful and relevant translation? The “relevant translation,” like Achilles, is committed to reaching the original, which, like the tortoise, has the only advantage of having taken off first, of starting first. However, precisely because of this advantage and similarly to the relation between Achilles and the tortoise, the translation cannot reach the original text. In any case, we need to remember that the logoi or argumentations used by Zeno of Elea to deny movement, change and becoming (like the riddle about Achilles and the tortoise or the other riddle about the arrow) were ultimately intended to support Parmenides and his thesis about unchangeable unity against the existence of plurality. Parmenides confuted the idea of the plurality and asserted the idea of unity, he introduced the concept of being and asserted that being is one (on Zeno’s riddles, cf. Colli 1998). Under a certain aspect, the thesis that asserts that only one is possible, only unity, can be connected to the question of translation. Confutation of the plurality, of the multiplicity can be applied to common views about the relation between that which is considered as the unique original text and that which are considered its many translations. From our point of view, it is important to underline that Zeno’s confutation of the plurality, as reported by Plato in Parmenides, is based on the notion of similarity, that is to say, on the same notion generally invoked to explain the relation between the text and its translations.

Even if a translation is simply a text “rewritten” in the same language, obviously it is not identical to the original (not even Pierre Menard’s Quijote by comparison to Miguel de Cervantes’s Quijote; on this account see the paper by Borges entitled, “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” 1939b). If a translation were totally similar to its original, it would be identical, simply another copy of the same text. But a translation must at the same time be similar and dissimilar, the same other. This is the paradox of translation, which is the paradox of multiplicity. To admit that translation is possible is to admit that something can be at once similar and dissimilar, which is a real contradiction. We could resort to Zeno’s argumentations, as reported in Plato’s Parmenides (127d-128e), and deny existence of the many, at once similar and dissimilar. That is, we could demonstrate that the idea of a text esisting at once as the original text and as the translation text, is absurd. Following this line of reasoning, and considering that it is impossible for the not-similar to be similar and for the similar to be not-similar, it would also be impossible for translations to exist given the conditions of impossibility.

Instead, expressed in terms of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, the “paradox of translation” consists in the fact that in order to reach the object-text in translation, the translatant text must somehow recover the former’s advantage of being first from the very start. With reference to Achilles and the tortoise, as reported by Aristotle in Physics (239b: 14-20), the argument is that in a race the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point from where the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. This argument is the same in principle as the paradox about the flying arrow: the arrow will never reach its goal because it must move across the infinite halves of the segment in a trajectory, where the segments are divisible ad infinitum. But in Achilles’s argument the distance which remains to be covered each time he attempts to reach the tortoise is not successively divided into halves.

Borges formulates this argument in slightly different terms (cf. “La perpetua carrera de Aquiles y la tortuga,” 1932b, and “Avatares de la tortuga,” 1939a): Achilles is ten times faster than the tortoise, therefore in the race he gives it a ten metre advantage. But if Achilles runs ten times faster than the tortoise, it follows that while Achilles runs a metre, the tortoise runs a decimetre; while Achilles runs a decimetre, the tortoise runs a centimetre; while Achilles runs a centimetre, the tortoise runs a millimetre, and so forth ad infinitum. Therefore, swift-footed Achilles will never reach the slow tortoise. Borges reports and examines various attempts at confuting Zeno of Elea’s paradox: that proposed by Thomas Hobbes, Stuart Mill (System of logic), Henri Bergson (“Essay upon the immediate data of consciousness”), William James (Some Problems of Philosophy) who maintained that Zeno’s paradox is an attack not only on the reality of space, but also on the more invunerable and subtle reality of time, and lastly Bertrand Russell (Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Our Knowledge of the External World), being the only attempt Borges considers worthy of the ‘original’ in terms of argumentative force. Of the ‘original’ is placed in inverted commas because all these successive argumentations are variants or translations of the primary text, in so far as they compete with Zeno’s paradox and attempt to equal it in argumentative ability.

Pierre Menard, author of Quijote, also turns his attention to the riddle of Achilles and the tortoise. And Borges dedicates a short story to Menard, included in Ficciones, which is just as paradoxical. In the story, Menard’s Quijote is listed among his works as Les problèmes d’un problème, dated Paris 1917. Menard discusses different solutions, in chronological order, to the ‘Achilles’ paradox, and in the second edition cites the following advice from Leibniz in the epigraph: “Ne craignez point, monsieur, la tortue.” Why should we fear the slow tortoise? Because of its advantage, because of the distancing, the time-lapse separating it in space and time, like a gulf, from swift-footed Achilles. To fear the tortoise is to fear translation because of the original, which has the advantage of coming first. The text which translates the original inevitably comes second. To fear the original and faithfully respect it: Menard decides that he will not just compose another Quijote, but the Quijote, the unique, the original Quijote. Of course, it was not just a question of imitating or copying the original. This would have meant to propose the advantage of the original once again, making of Quijote, as composed by Menard, a second text. Menard had a sacred fear of the original, however he did not fear producing pages that coincided word by word with the words of Cervantes. Menard succeeded in composing chapters IX and XXXVIII from the first part of Quijote. What was his expedient? After having excluded the idea of competing with Cervantes identifying with his life, times, biographical context, and reaching Quijote, having in a sense become Cervantes (who was decidedly at an advantage simply because he had undertaken to write the same artwork much earlier), Menard decided that the greater challenge was to reach Quijote while remaining Menard, through his own experience as Menard.

Menard’s Quijote (a fragmentary work of art, one had to be immortal to bring it to completion) is only “verbally identical” to Cervantes’s Quijote. To prove the difference, in his short story Borges cites a passage from Quijote by Cervantes (Part I, Chapter IX) and the corresponding passage from Quijote by Menard. Even though these two passages correspond by the letter, the version by Menard, a contemporary of Williams James, clearly resounds with pragmatical overtones. Unlike Cervantes, for Menard, historical truth, discussed in exactly the same terms in both passages, is not what happened but what we judge happened. Achilles can recover the tortoise’s advantage and overtake it simply because it was he who gave the tortoise an advantage, even if it started first, it was he who let the tortoise be first. All things considered, it is the tortoise that depends on Achilles, and Achilles who thanks to his generosity for giving the tortoise an advantage in fact beats it, supercedes it. Time also plays its part. The style of Menard’s Quijote is inevitably archaic and affected, while Cervantes’s Quijote is updated and with the times with respect to the Spanish language as it was spoken in his own day.


4. Metempsychosis and transmigration across texts in translation

A translation proposed by Antonin Artaud (1989), translator of Lewis Carroll, is another case in which the text that comes after the original claims to be first, indeed claims to be the original itself. In this case, the translation interrogates the original, asserting its difference with respect to the original, the pre-scribed text. Here, not only does the translation dispute the original, but it also disputes the language into which it is translated, calling to issue the logic of discourse, the order of representation.

In L’arve et l’aume, a translation of the chapter on Humpty Dumpty in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Artaud works through Carroll’s text (to read is “to read through”), and does so not only in terms of a cruel antigrammatical enterprise against Carroll himself but also against the French language. This is a case of translation where “existence” and “flesh,” body and life are all at stake in the process, as in the theatre of cruelty.

Word-play in Carroll does not go beyond a caricature of the exchange relation between signifié and signifiant. Carroll does not succeed in denouncing the hypocrisy and repression upon which the exchange relation is based. Nor does he deal with social structures, the mechanisms of production, the ideological assumptions to which exchange is functional. Carroll glimpses at the looking glass, but keeps away from the double, the shadow of which he indistinctly catches sight. An infinity of heartless, psychic trickeries. Affected language. As observed by Gilles Deleuze, the battle of the deep, its monsters, the mix-up of bodies, turmoil, subversion of order, encounter between the bottommost and the elevated, food and excrement, the eating of words, the underground adventures of Alice’s Adventures Underground (which is the original title of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), all this is supplanted by a play of surfaces: instead of collapse, there are lateral sliding movements (cf. Deleuze 1996: 37-38).

Consequently, by comparison with Artaud’s antigrammatical enterprise, Carroll’s text is described as a bad imitation, a vulgar reproduction. The presumed original is only an edulcorated plagiarism, devoid of the punch and vigour of a work first written by Artaud. Indeed, Artaud wished to add a post-sciptum to L’arve et l’aume notifying the net sensation that he had himself first conceived and written the poem on fish, being, obedience, the sea, and God, revelation of a blinding truth (all of which is included in his translation of Carroll), centuries earlier, only to rediscover his own artwork in the hands of Carroll (cf. Ponzio 1997b and 1998; Petrilli 1999).

A case of metempsychosis: the original text is reincarnated in a weak, bloodless body, but now is at last free, and returns to what it first was through Artaud’s writing. This is not only a question of transmigration from one author to another, but also from one language to another: the text is freed from the body of language, even from the very language which translates it. Is this an extreme case? Or is every translation — every translation of a literary text — the transmigration of a text that wants to get free of its own language, from its own author, from contemporaneity? But is not every text a prisoner of its own times, and the very fact of reading it, an attempt at freeing it? And once that text has been read or translated, is it not a prisoner yet again in the new text that interprets it? Every reading, every translation, is a transmigration. An infinite transmigration.

The question itself of translation is a paradox: the text withdraws from the reading text and the translatant text because it is unreachable. But precisely because of this, it remains a prisoner in an endless transmigration. One of the transmigrations of the paradox of the tortoise is the very question of translation. Borges uses the expression ‘metempsychoses of the tortoise’ (‘avatares de la tortuga’) for all those arguments which reproduce Zeno’s paradox. This paradox and all its metempsychoses are connected with that concept which ‘corrupts and maddens others,’ the concept of the infinite. This idea of the infinite is present in the expression itself, ‘la perpetua carrera de Aquiles y la tortuga,’ which we know corresponds to the title of one of the two texts by Borges dedicated to the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise.

This is the infinite of ‘nothing new under the sun’ in Ecclesiastes or Qohélet. ‘Havèl havalím,’ ‘Un infinito vuoto,’ as translated into Italian by Guido Ceronetti (1970) and subsequently, in his continual revisitations of the same text (cf. reedition of 1988), ‘Fumo di fumi.’ This is Saint Jerome’s ‘vanitas vanitatum,’ he too a translator who reflected upon the paradox of translation (Liber de optimo interpretandi). His motto was non verbum et verbo reddere, sed sensum exprimere de sensu, even though he tried to make an exception for the mysterious word order in the Bible (verborum ordo mysterium), as observed by Derrida (1999-2000: 30). This is the infinite of Achilles’s perpetual pursuit of the tortoise, of the translation’s pursuit of the original. Ceronetti translates and retranslates Qohélet into Italian in his own pursuit of the evanescent ‘original’:



Andare e girare il vento / Da Sud a Settentrione / Girare girare andare / Del vento nel suo girare / Tutti i fiumi senza riempirlo / Si gettano nel mare / Sempre alla stessa foce / Si vanno i fiumi a gettare / Si stanca qualsiasi parola / Di più non puoi farle dire. (Qohélet, It. trans. in Ceronetti 1970)


Andato a Sud gira a Nord / Il vento nel suo andare / Dopo giri su giri / Il vento ricomincia il suo girare / Si versano nel mare tutti i fiumi / Senza riempire il mare / E là dove si versano / Seguiteranno ad andare / Stancabile è ogni parola / Oltre il dire non può. (Qohélet, It. trans. in Ceronetti 1970, reedition of 1988)

Borges knows of the infinite, he knows of the tortoise’s perpetual race and its metempsychoses, but he does not know as a philosopher who wants to solve a paradox. He knows as knows a writer and translator, thanks to his experience of texts, to his practice in reading-rewriting. Similarly to ‘our’ Leopardi, him too a translator-writer, Borges knows of the infinite: “lo chiamerei Ecclesiastes noster, se noster non ponesse limiti, a Leopardi e a Qohélet, come se fosse meno nostro il Vecchio di Gerusalemme perché nato e morto in Giudea, e meno nato in Giudea, e vivente dappertutto, un poeta di Recanati” (Ceronetti 1970: 94). In “Ecclesiastés, 1-9” (in La cifra, Borges 1981), Borges expresses the idea of the infinite in the qohéletic terms of a perpetual beginning again and again, a perpetual tending toward, a perpetual running under the sun. But as the sun starts again, indifferent, over and over again and slowly advances, it makes all movements seem static, as though blocked in an outreaching gesture toward something. All is destined to remain without satisfaction, without gratification, without a conclusion.

Through his paradoxes Zeno posed the problem of the infinite, but unlike other philosophers he did not claim to solve it. Indeed, if philosophy is the capacity to interrogate the ethics of accumulation and productivity and to evidence the non functional character of the properly human (cf. Ponzio 1997a), the philosopher is he who, like Zeno of Elea, rediscovers the (qohéletic) truth of the paradox, that is to say, that swift-footed Achilles is defeated by the slow tortoise. And this is true even when the philosopher in question is educated by one of the most important philosophers ever, namely, Aristotle, and not by the centaur Cheiron, as in the case of Alexander the Great (cf. Ponzio 1990). No doubt the metempsychosis of the text through readings and translations may be counted among the ‘metempsychoses of the tortoise.’ The very fact that there should exist a translatant text, even a reading text is a paradox. The text is one and cannot be many, for these would contradict the first, being similar and dissimilar, the same other. At the same time, however, from one the text becomes two and from two it becomes three, and so forth ad infinitum, simply because it exists. The text in itself is an infinite metempsychosis. And this is so because of its nature as a sign.

Like all texts, the literary text too is originally an interpretant. The literary text pictures before being pictured in turn, that is, before being rendered visible through translation processes into another language, into another verbal or nonverbal sign system. Similarly to the translatant text, the literary text object of translation renders the invisible visible; it too relates to the other and not to the identical. As anticipated above, the artistic work as such, as demonstrated by Levinas, renders the invisible, the otherness of identity, its shadow. As Levinas teaches us, all identities, first and foremost Identity of self, carry a shadow, their otherness which can never be eliminated as much as one tries.

At a certain point in his paper, “La realité et son ombre,” Levinas names Zeno of Elea referring to his first paradox, the one about the arrow: “Zénon, cruel Zénon... Cette flèche...” (Levinas 1994[1948]: 142). Though he does not declare it, Levinas takes this citation from “Le cimetière marin” by Valéry. In this poem Valéry also refers to Zeno’s second paradox in which Achilles does not succeed in catching up with the slow tortoise. In other words, Achilles, the identity of self, does not succeed in standing up to his own alterity, in leaving his own shadow. To say it with Peirce, the self, the subject, is a sign and a such it is continuously displaced, rendered other, in a process of deferrals from one interpretant to another, without ever convergingwith itself.

In “Le cimetière marin,” strophe XIII, that is, before referring to Zeno (strophe XXI), the only change with respect to the sun hanging motionless in the sky at midday is represented by the self (“Midi là-haut, Midi sans mouvement / [...] Je suis en toi le secret changement”). In strophe XXI, the situation is overturned: in spite of the self’s struggles, nothing new under the sun, shadow of the tortoise for self which, though running fast, seems motionless, like Achilles.



Zénon! Cruel Zénon! Zénon d’Élée! / M’as-tu percé de cette flèche ailée / Qui vibre, vole, et qui ne vole pas! / Le son m’enfante et la flèche me tue! / Ah! Le soleil... Quelle ombre de tortue / Pour l’âme, Achille immobile à grands pas! (Valéry 1995)


Zenon! Crudele! Zenone eleata! / M’hai tu trafitto con la freccia alata, / Che vibra, vola, eppure in vol non è! / Mi dà il suon vita che la freccia fuga, / Ah! Questo sole...Ombra di tartaruga / Per l’io, l’immoto Achille lesto piè! (Valéry 2000: 245).


Now to return to the paradox of the text and its translation. In so far as it is identical and other, similar and dissimilar, the same other, the artwork is a living image of the tortoise’s metempsychosis, but not only the artwork. The artwork evidences, renders visible, qohéletically, how any identity is a living image of the tortoise’s metempsychosis, how reality itself is a living image of the tortoise’s metempsychosis. As Levinas specifies, in the artwork similarity appears “non pas comme le résultat d’une comparaison entre l’image et l’original, mais comme le mouvement même qui engendre l’image. La réalité ne serait pas seulement ce qu’elle est, ce qu’elle se dévoile dans la verité, mais aussi son double, son ombre, son image” (Levinas 1994: 133; cf. also Ponzio 1996: 127-142). This corresponds to what Peirce describes as the ‘icon’ where, as reported above, the relation between the sign and its object is based on similarity, as distinct from the ‘symbol’ which is characterized by the relation of conventionality, and the ‘index’ which is characterized by the relation of continguity and causality.

The literary text object of translation (and not just the interlingual translation itself) is endowed with iconicity, which means that it installs a relation of similarity with the invisible, with the other of the identical, with the shadow of reality, as Levinas would say. Through the very process of its formation as a sign on the basis of similarity, the literary text renders the irreducible alterity of the invisible visible. From this point of view the ‘original text’ is an icon and not an idol. It becomes an idol when its alterity is denied, and it is made to converge with its identity.

Image-icon versus image-idol. In “Le Cimetière marin” by Valéry, the word ‘idol’ is present in the line “De mille et mille idoles du soleil.” In the Spanish translation by Néstor Ibarra, published in 1932 with a preface by Borges (1932c), ‘idoles’ is incorrectly translated with ‘images,’ even though ‘images’ is, as maintained by Borges, “the etymological equivalent of idoles.” In spite of the etymology, in historical terms beginning from the defence of the cult of icons, the image is not only an idol, but it is also an icon.

However, given that the original text, in this case “Le Cimetière marin,” is an icon, just as its translation is an icon, the translation may in fact surpass the original in terms of iconicity, as in the case of the Spanish translation by Néstor Ibarra. Borges registers this on comparing the following line by Ibarra, “La pérdida del rumor de la ribera” with the respective line by Valéry, “Le changement des rives en rumeur.” The French original seems an ‘imitation,’ says Borges, for by comparison with the Spanish translation it does not succeed in wholly ‘restoring’ the ‘Latin savor.’ To blindly maintain the opposite only because the line by Valéry is the ‘original,’ means to privilege Valéry the author-man who came first merely on a temporal level with respect to Valéry the author-creator who, instead, comes second in terms of iconic figuration, of picturing – at least for what concerns this particular line which appears as the bad copy of the Castilian original. Artaud says exactly the same about Carroll when the former claims that his own translation of Carroll’s text is the original. Such a claim is possible on the basis of the fact that in front of two texts which are both strongly iconic, one by the author, the other by the translator, the translator’s version may indeed surpass the author’s in terms of iconicity and picture that which it wishes to picture even better than the original itself.

To be first in terms of temporality does not stop the second text from overcoming the first, transcending it. In fact, both the second text and the first text are interpretant signs and iconic. From this point of view, there is no such thing as the first text. Instead, what we have is a succession of interpretants where each time one interpretant surpasses another, the second sign is surpassed by yet another in a third sign and so forth ad infinitum: the text is another instance of the tortoise’s metempsychoses as it flourishes in its transmigrations from one text to another. This is not only true of texts crossing over different languages, a text in interlingual translation, but also of texts in the same language and in the same body of literature. To assume that a new combination of elements — says Borges in the first page of his paper on Valéry’s “Le Cimetière marin,” which is almost the same as the first page of his paper on the Homeric translations — is necessarily inferior to the original text means to assume that a subsequent draft is necessarily inferior to an antecedent draft – and we speak of drafts given that, in the last analysis, there are nothing but drafts. In other words, we may claim that nothing else exists but a succession of interpretant texts, in this case all icons. To assert that the ‘original text,’ the ‘definitive text,’ the final text’ is excluded from this succession of iconic signs is idolatry.


5. Iconicity and translation in and across verbal and nonverbal sign systems

Victoria Welby stated explicitly that “while language itself is a symbolic system its method is mainly pictorial” (Welby 1983[1903]: 38). Through recourse to Peirce’s most fundamental trichotomic classification of signhood into symbolicity, indexicality and iconicity (see CP 2.247-2.249; also Peirce’s letter of Oct. 12, 1904 to Welby, in Hardwick 1977: 22-25), we could ‘translate’ or ‘reword’ this sentence as follows: ‘if verbal language itself is a conventional system its method is mainly iconic.’ In other words, Welby’s statement recognizes the importance of the role of iconicity, that is, of the iconic relation of hypothetical similarity in the development of verbal language.

In Tractatus Wittgenstein also worked on the processes that produce language-thought processes, on semiotic-cognitive procedure. Later, in his Philosophical Investigations, he set aside this aspect of his research to focus on the question of meaning as use and linguistic convention (linguistic games). Philosophical Investigations is typically viewed, especially by analytical philosophers, as an important turning point in Wittgenstein’s research. However, the importance of his Tractatus must not be underestimated, especially as it relates to his work on the iconic aspect of language (cf. Ponzio 1991: 185-201, 1997a: 309-313). In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between names and propositions: the relation between names or ‘simple signs’ used in the proposition and their objects or meaning is of the conventional type. In fact, the rule or code that relates the sign to the object to which it refers is arbitrary and, therefore, cannot be discovered simply by guessing: sign arbitrariness is a category proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) to characterize certain types of signs – verbal signs and nonverbal signals. Instead, the relation between whole propositions or ‘propositional signs,’ Welby’s ‘pictorial symbol’ and ‘representative action,’ and what they signify, their interpretant, is a relation of similarity, a relation dominated by iconicity. Wittgenstein’s ‘proposition,’ like Welby’s ‘pictorial symbol’ are complete signifying units with high semiotic potential, what we may also call ‘logical pictures’ (see also CP 4.022 and 4.026). Therefore, whilst including a strong conventional-symbolic component, propositions are fundamentally based on the relation of resemblance, and as such may be characterized as iconic signs. Much like Peirce’s ‘existential graphs’, this relation is considered to be of the proportional or structural type.

In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein focuses on the role of situational context as completion of the proposition’s representative or signifying function. Thus contextualized, the ‘proposition’ becomes an ‘utterance,’ as understood by Mikhail M. Bakhtin who thoroughly analyzes this category in light of the Russian word vyskazyvanie (see Bakhtin 1986; and Voloshinov 1973, 1987). When the relation between the interpreted sign and the interpretant sign forming the utterance is dominated by iconicity, it emerges as a dialogic relation of answering comprehension at lesser or higher degrees of alterity. The iconic relation thus described is endowed with a varying capacity for criticism, cognitive innovation, and creativity. No doubt the conventional-symbolic relation is operative in propositions and utterances, but the iconic mode is dominant, similarly to Peirce’s ‘diagrams,’ where the iconic relation is of the proportional or structural type. With reference to Wittgenstein’s analyses, the proposition is a logical picture dominated by the iconic dimension of signifying processes, and, accordingly, the successful translation of the proposition thus described across languages must in turn necessarily involve high degrees of iconicity.

In Tractatus Wittgenstein maintains that to know a proposition means to know the situation it represents. Furthermore, to understand a proposition does not mean to explain its sense given that “a proposition shows its sense” (4.022). Consequently, while “the meanings of simple signs (words) must be explained,” “with propositions [...] we make ourselves understood” (4.026). The following observation by Augusto Ponzio underlines the importance of Wittgenstein’s picture theory for a better understanding of the processes involved in producing language, therefore of signifying processes generally, and can easily be applied to Welby’s own analysis of language as reported above:


[...] as a logical picture, representation tells of the mechanism that produces propositions and explains how language, through propositional signs, is able to escape the pure and simple convention of names, which would render [language] altogether repetitive. The question invests the mechanism of the production and development of thought given that ‘a logical picture of the facts is the thought’ and that ‘a thought is a proposition with a sense’ [reference here is to propositions 3 and 4 of the Tractatus]. (Ponzio 1991: 199)



For Wittgenstein, author of the Tractatus, as much as for Welby, language analysis must not be limited to the surface description of signifying phenomena, of language and thought, of inferential-cognitive procedure, but instead must account for the very production processes of such phenomena. Here, an ideal connection can be signaled again with Rossi-Landi and his notions of ‘common speech,’ ‘linguistic work’ and, in a more mature phase of his theoretical work, ‘social reproduction.’ Furthermore, the iconic relation can be further specified in terms of the distinction between analogy, isomorphism and homology, as discussed by Rossi-Landi (1968). The distinction between analogy and homology also responds well to the general orientation of Sebeok’s own research, considering its close association with the biological sciences from which derives the possibility of making such a distinction.

Studies by Welby, Wittgenstein, Bakhtin and above all Peirce help account for the more complex levels of signification, expression and communication processes, verbal and nonverbal (when not reduced to the mere function of information and message exchange). Each of these scholars calls our attention to the important role carried out in communication by iconic representation and alterity, therefore to the importance of relations among signs beyond systemic restrictions. This orientation also helps to highlight the dialectic and dialogic nature of ongoing interpretive-translative interactive processes between ‘unity and disparateness,’ as Welby says in the citation above, between centripetal forces and centrifugal forces operative in language, as Bakhtin says (1981: 272), between centralization and decentralization, monolingualism and plurilingualism, monologism and polylogism, identity and alterity, the same and the other, and also between translatability and untranslatability. Thanks to such dialectics, knowledge and truth are never given once and for all, but rather are open to continuous investigation and modification in processes of constant renewal and adaptation to ever new interpretive, expressive, and communicative needs. And such dynamics also involves the simple level of everyday exchange.



6. Signs, significance and translation


Let us now relate the above considerations to Jakobson’s analysis of translation (see Jakobson 1971) in the light of Peirce’s tripartition of signs into symbols, indices and icons. We know that any one given sign (identifiable as such only by abstraction from real semiosic processes) is the product of the dialectic and dialogic interaction among conventionality, indexicality and iconicity in sign situations where one of these aspects prevails over the others. Jakobson proposes a triad that distinguishes between three different types of translative-interpretive processes: 1) intralingual translation, or rewording; 2) interlingual translation, or translation proper; 3) intersemiotic translation, or transmutation. By relating the two triads we obtain a more adequate specification of the relation between translation and signs, and a broader, yet more precise characterization of the interpretive-translative processes constituting and proliferating in our semiosphere. Each of the three translative-interpretive modalities identified by Jakobson is dominated either by conventionality, indexicality or iconicity. In other words, the relation between the interpreted and the interpretant, the translated sign and its translatant sign is dominated either by the symbol, index or icon. Furthermore, the three types of translation identified by Jakobson are always interrelated, more or less co-existing with each other to different degrees. For example, in the case of interlingual translation, for a full understanding of the sense of the object of translation, and its adequate rendition in the ‘target’ language, it will also be necessary to continually resort to intralingual translation in each of the two languages in question. When conventionality predominates, the relation between a sign and its object (or referent) is established on the basis of a code. This occurs in verbal language and is the kind of relation alluded to by Welby when she says that ‘[verbal] language [...] is a symbolic system.’ We know that reference to a code is inevitable to translate the linguistic elements of a text, especially in the initial phases of translative-interpretive processes. When reference to the code predominates, distancing between interpretant signs and interpreted signs is minimal. At this level in translative-interpretive processes, the mere activity of recognition and identification is of first importance.

Moreover, signs and interpretants are also united by relations of a compulsory order, that is to say, by indexical relations as understood by Peirce. A bilingual dictionary adds the relation of contiguity between the sign and its interpretant (which together with causality is proper to the index) to mechanical necessity, when it associates the vocable in the source language to its equivalent(s) in the target language. Therefore, interlingual translative processes involve indexicality in addition to conventionality. Let us now read Wittgenstein’s observation on translation from the Tractatus from this perspective: “When translating one language into another, we do not proceed by translating each proposition of the one into a proposition of the other, but merely by translating the constituents of propositions” (Wittgenstein 1961, 4.025). Indexicality refers to the compulsory nature of the relation between a sign and its object. This is regulated by cause and effect dynamics, by relations of spatio-temporal contiguity, which are necessarily pre-existent with respect to interpretation. When indexicality predominates translation-interpretation processes simply evidence correspondences where they already exist. The degree of creative work involved is minimal.

Through Valentin N. Voloshinov, author of Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1929 (see Voloshinov 1973), Bakhtin(-Voloshinov) conceptualizes communication and social intercourse in terms of dialectic and dialogic interaction between identity and alterity, and introduces other two important categories in his analysis of verbal language, which may be extended to other sign systems as well: ‘theme’ (smysl) and ‘meaning’ (znacenie), or, if we prefer, ‘actual sense’ and ‘abstract sense’ (Ibidem: 106). The second term in these pairs covers all that is identical, reproducible and immediately recognizable each time the utterance is repeated — it concerns the meaning of linguistic elements, e.g. the phonemes and monemes constituting the utterance. ‘Meaning’ thus understood corresponds to signality rather than to signhood, to the ‘interpretant of identification,’ rather than to the ‘interpretant of answering comprehension,’ to ‘plain meaning,’ rather than to plurivocal meaning, to translation processes (and phases) where the degree of dialogism and distance regulating the connection between interpretant sign and interpreted sign is minimal. Instead, ‘theme’ refers to all that is original and unreproducible in an utterance, to overall sense, signifying import and evaluative orientation as these aspects emerge in a given instance of communicative interaction. ‘Theme’ accounts for communication and signifying processes in terms of answering comprehension, dialectic-dialogic response, and multiaccentuality. It concerns translation-interpretation processes where iconicity prevails, such as to determine the capacity for qualitative leaps in knowledge and perception, amplifying the semantic polyvalency of discourse, and opening up to new ideological horizons:


Theme is a complex, dynamic system of signs that attempts to be adequate to a given instance of generative process. There is reaction by the consciousness in its generative process to the generative process of existence. Meaning is the technical apparatus for the implementation of theme (Ibidem: 100)

The iconic relation between a sign and its interpretant plays a fundamental role in the rendition of the ‘theme’ or ‘actual sense of discourse and this is also true in the case of interlingual translation. If translation processes stop at the level of conventionality and indexicality, translators will fail their task. When in her discussion of translative-interpretive processes Welby stated that the method of language is pictorial, she evidenced an aspect of verbal signs that is irreducible to indexicality or to conventionality. The translator must navigate in the iconic dimension of language and move beyond the conventions and obligations of the dictionary to enter the live dialogue among national languages, among languages internal to a given national language, and among verbal signs and nonverbal signs. The interplay among interpreteds and interpretants, among ‘translated signs’ and ‘translatant signs’ at high levels of semiotic resonance necessarily involves iconicity, dialogism and alterity to lesser or greater degrees.

Iconicity implies that the relation between a sign and its object is not totally established by rules and codes, as in the case of symbols, that it does not preexist with respect to a code, as in the case of indices, but rather that this relation is invented freely and creatively by the interpretant. In the case of icons, the relation between a sign and its object is neither conventional nor necessary and contiguous, but hypothetical. It corresponds to Bakhtin’s ‘theme,’ or ‘actual sense.’ And the interpreter, in our case, the translator, must keep account of all this when rendering the original interpretant with the interpretant of another language. When the relation between a sign and its object, and between different types of signs, is regulated by the iconic relation of similarity, affinity and attraction, as Peirce would say, the interpretive-translative processes forming the logico-cognitive and signifying universe at large develop according to the logic of dialogism, alterity, polyphony, polylogism and plurilingualism. These are all essential properties of language in addition to being necessary as a condition for critical awareness, experimentation, innovation, and creativity. What we claim à propos interlingual translation is also true in the case of intralingual and intersemiotic translation. We know that interlingual translation implies the other two types of translation. Therefore, translative processes always involve interaction among the three types of sign-object-interpretant relations, as identified by Peirce, or in our terminology interpreted-interpretant relations, and the three modalities of translation, as identified by Jakobson. Meanings subsist and flourish in interpretive-translative processes regulated by the relation between identity and alterity in a polylogic and plurilinguistic context, internal and external to a single language.

In this theoretical framework as delineated by interpretation semiotics, with important contributions from such authors as those mentioned in this essay – Peirce, Welby, Morris, Rossi-Landi, Bakhtin, Levinas, Jakobson, Sebeok, and Ponzio – communication is confirmed as a primary function of human language, but with an important specification: communication is not reductively understood in terms of message exchange, but rather converges with life, with semiosis in the biosphere, thereby presupposing the dynamics of dialogism and intercorporeity. But what we wish to underline in the present context is the following: as regards in particular the human world communication converges with the capacity for the unspoken, the unsaid, vagueness, ambiguity, inscrutability, concealment, reticence, allusion, illusion, implication, simulation, imitation, pretence, semantic pliancy, polysemy, polylogism, plurilingualism, alterity — all this presupposes the predominance of iconicity in semiosis and determines the very possibility itself of successful communicative interaction, of successful translative practice.

Concrete live speech is possible thanks to continuous translative processes on the side of both production and interpretation in the passage from one code (linked to class, linguistic register, idiolect, genre, etc.) to another, from one language to another, from one communicative context to another. And we have seen that a fundamental requisite for the success of communication-translation processes is ‘answering comprehension.’ This implies speaker ability to reformulate and adapt language to the language of his/her interlocutors, to reflect metalinguistically on language in the effort to develop and specify meaning through recourse to interpretants from the language of others, to reflect metalinguistically on the language of others in order to specify meaning in terms of interpretants from one’s own language. ‘Active or answering comprehension’ concerns the ‘theme’ or ‘actual sense’ of an utterance. It is achieved thanks to dialogic relations among different languages and codes, which allow for such operations as rewording, transposition, and transmutation in the deferral among interpretants as they substitute each other without ever perfectly converging. Far from being compact, unitary and monolithic, human language can be described as a live signifying process, constantly renewing itself through the generation of different idioms, discourses, logics and viewpoints. This is also possible thanks to a predominant tendency toward decentralization, detotalization and otherness, as foreseen by the nature of signs. Plurilingualism and polylogism, both internal and external to a single language, ensue from the potential in human language for distancing, for the expression of viewpoints that are other, for different and other worldviews: indeed, human language develops as a function of this very potential. To evoke George Steiner (1975), language thus understood is the main instrument through which the human person can refuse the world as it is, in our terminology, the being of the world, the being of signs. Each single language presents its own interpretation/s of reality, but thanks to the semiosic capacity for translation across different orders and systems of signs, therefore for what concerns us here specifically, across different languages and cultures, humans are also in a position to discover the pleasure of freedom and evasion with respect to boundaries, including the boundaries of verbal language systems in their diverse forms. Also, with Sebeok we learn that language understood in terms of modeling determines the human propensity for what Peirce calls ‘the play of musement,’ which, propelled by dialogism, otherness, and iconicity, not only involves the real world, but, as observed by Sebeok, interpreter of Peirce (see Sebeok 1981), also accounts for the possibility of generating an infinite number of possible worlds.



7. The paradox of language: translating the untranslatable

With reference to the question of translatability among historical-natural languages, to ask whether or not historical-natural languages communicate with each other is irrelevant. In any case, our answer would have to be that as close as two languages may appear to be in terms of historical formation they do not communicate with each other directly. That two languages may have many aspects in common, either because they are familiar with each other or because they share a common past on the level of formation and transformation processes, does not eliminate differences among them. Nor will there necessarily be overlap between the two distinct universes of discourse and worldviews that these languages represent. Every language is endowed with its own specificity at all levels of analysis: phonological, intonational, syntactic, semantic, lexical, pragmatic, semiotico-cultural. Ferdinand Saussure’s observation that in language (langue) there are only differences, is commonly neglected by certain trends in linguistics as well as in semiotics. In a letter to C. G. Jung dated 17 February 1908, Sigmund Freud went as far as stating that his Interpretation of Dreams was untranslatable and would have to be reinvented, reconstructed in each language intending to host it (see Freud 1974: 130).

The correct question does not concern communication but expressibility. Therefore, the question concerning translatability is the following: can that which is said in one historical-natural language somehow be expressed in another? The answer should not be of the inductive type, that is, requiring that it be verified each time, case by case, and in all languages. And given the sphere we are in, that is, the historical-cultural sphere, that of the human sciences and not some formal discipline, nor should the answer be of the deductive type, that is, deriving from some theoretical premise or axiom. In this case, the answer we give is of the abductive or hypothetical-deductive type. In other words, it can be reached on the basis of an inference that allows for a hypothesis that will be verified as the occasion occurs.

From this perspective, to translate (this impossible communication among historical-natural languages) is always possible. This convinction is based on the metalinguistic character of verbal signs. Interlingual translation occurs in territory that is common to all historical-natural languages, the verbal. It involves endoverbal translation as much as endolingual translation. Therefore, interlingual translatability occurs on common ground and involves common practices that are already familiar to a speaker in a single language: we are referring to the practice of transverbal expressibility. The verbal, with respect to itself, is endowed with a distinctive feature that differentiates it from nonverbal special languages, the metalinguistic capacity. By contrast with nonverbal sign systems, verbal sign systems can speak about themselves, make themselves the object, the interpreted of discourse. We know that the presence of multiple special languages in a single historical-natural language enhances speaker capacity for using language at a metalinguistic level. All the same, when a case of ‘internal plurilingualism,’ the degree of distancing achieved between metalanguage and object language in a given historical-natural language is inferior to the degree of distancing achieved when translating across different historical-natural languages. Therefore, if we consider the problem of translatability in terms of expressibility, we must inevitably agree that the relation with another historical-natural language favours expressibility, and that translation is not only possible, but even enhances the speaker’s metalinguistic capacity.

To the extent that interlingual translation is also endoverbal translation it is achieved on the basis of what Rossi-Landi called ‘parlare comune’ (‘common speech’, see Rossi-Landi 1961). This expression was introduced by Rossi-Landi to conceptualize a system of relatively constant human techniques, a system that is broadly international, that is, not limited to national-cultural boundaries (Ibidem: 165). ‘Common speech’ indicates all those operations in speech that are essential for successful communication among human beings, it refers to basic similarities among all human communities in biological and social structure beyond historical and geographical differences (see Ponzio 1990: 121-149). The ‘common speech’ hypothesis clarifies that the relation of resemblance, similarity, or likeness between the original text and the translatant text, which translation must keep account of, is neither a relation of isomorphism nor of superficial analogy, but rather of homology. In other words, in spite of differences among historical-natural languages these are connected by a relation of resemblance of the genetico-structural order, in other words while texts in two historical-natural languages are different, they share ‘common speech.’


Thanks to the metalinguistic capacity of the verbal, it is always possible to reformulate that which has been said, whether in the same historical-natural language, or better, special language or in a different historical-natural language or special language. Translatability is inherent in the verbal and is also possible thanks to ‘common speech.’ This position contrasts with those conceptions that describe historical-natural languages as closed and self-sufficient systems, on the one hand, and with extremes in the description of differences among historical-natural languages in terms of ‘linguistic relativity,’ on the other. In terms of metalinguistic usage, translatability is a characteristic common to all historical-natural languages, and as such is part of the ‘common speech’ capacity.

As reported discourse, translation resorts to a practice that all historical-natural languages are trained in, that is to say, reporting the discourse of others. Of course, not only is the langue involved in reported discourse, but also the parole. The individual parole is always more or less reported discourse in the form of imitation, stylization, parodization, direct or hidden controversy (according to all the modalities analyzed by Bakhtin in his two different editions of his monograph on Dostoevsky, the first published in 1929, the second in 1963). The presence of the word of the other in one’s own word, the fact that one’s own word must make its way through the intentions and the senses of the word of others favours the dialogic disposition of the translatant word, and enhances the constitutive dialogism of the word, translated and translatant. The inclination to respond to and report the discourse of others is structural to historical-natural language and to the utterance. In other words, the disposition to respond to and report the word of others across historical-natural languages in the form of interlingual translation is already inscribed in speech, that is, in the linguistic functions and traditions that render speech possible. At the most, one of the major difficulties that the translator can encounter is that the utterance or the text in translation may belong to a special language (sectorial or specialized) that he or she is not necessarily familiar with, or not sufficiently so. But this is not a different problem from that which emerges in endolingual or intralingual translation. In any case, such difficulties do not justify supporting the principle of interlingual intranslatability, bearing in mind, however, the considerations we offer below.

As regards the translation of a literary text, above all a poetic text often evoked to support the claim that translation is impossible, we believe that the distanced and indirect character of the translatant word may be used to convalidate the thesis of translatability. From this point of view the argument may run as follows: the literary word and the translatant word relate to each other homologically, that is, on the basis of iconicity, in other words, they are related in terms of similarity not just at a surface level but at the level of formation and structure. Both the literary word and the translatant word can be distinguished from the word of primary or direct discourse genres (see Bakhtin 1979), that is, from the word that converges with the subject that produces it. The literary word belongs to secondary or indirect discourse genres. As part of secondary genres, the literary word is no longer a direct word, one’s own word, a word that identifies with the subject of discourse, as normally occurs in ordinary speech – or at least this is the claim. Instead, secondary genres evidence the indirect character of the word, the word with its shadow, to evoke Levinas. Here the word presents itself as an objectified word, a word that is pictured, and distanced from the self of discourse. The author does not identify with the literary word. On the contrary, the literary word, the word of secondary genres is other, such that whomever uses this word says ‘I’ without identifying with this pronoun. This occurs, for example, in the novel narrated in first person; in drama where the playwright makes his characters speak directly; even in lyrical poetry and in autobiography where a certain amount of distancing always intervenes between the writer and the I of discourse: ‘extralocalization’ (a Bakhtinian term) is the condition of literariness, of artistic discourse in general.

Translation is indirect discourse masked as direct discourse, all the same distanced from its author-translator. In fact, the translator says ‘I’ and nobody identifies him or her with the I of discourse, even in the case of oral and simultaneous translation. The Ambassador says: ‘Thank you for receiving me, I am indeed honoured to be here’; and the interpreter translates: ‘Grazie per l’accoglienza, sono davvero onorato di essere qui’; and nobody would dream of thinking that it is the interpreter who is grateful or honoured. From this point of view and contrary to prejudice about the possibility of translating literary texts – especially a poetic text –, the capacity for exotopy, distancing, extralocalization, the iconic relation of similarity regulating translation as translation, somehow makes translation a privileged place for the orientation of discourse toward literariness. Such characteristics shared by the literary word and the translatant word in fact render them less distant from each other than would be commonly expected.

But ‘translatability’ does not only signify the possibility of translation. It also denotes an open relation between a text in the original and its translation. As the general ‘interpretability’ of a text – with respect to which ‘translatability’ is a special case – translatability also indicates that the translation of a text remains open and never definitively resolved; that a translated text may continue to be translated, in fact may be translated over and over again, even in the same language into which it has already been translated, and eventually by the same translator, producing a potentially infinite number of translatant texts. The sign materiality of that which is translated, its otherness and capacity for resistance with respect to any one interpretive trajectory, its complexity is evidenced by the inexhaustibility of the original in the texts that translate it. This meaning of the expression ‘translatability’ must also be taken into consideration when reflecting on the limits of translation, as in general of interpretation.

The problem of translatability must be faced in close relation with the problem of untranslatablity, being two faces of the same process. Translatability, interpretability, expressibility of the untranslatable, of the uninterpretable, of the unexpressible. By virtue of semiotic materiality, the absolute otherness of signs, their capacity for resistance in the face of all attempts at interpretation-translation made upon them, the concept of translatability relates to the untranslatable, to that which cannot be possessed, which evades the limits of comprehensibility, the infinite with respect to the totality, the unsayable with respect to the said of any linguistic system whatever, the unconscious with respect to the conscious, the impossible. Language is the place of equivocation and misunderstaning and invents itself anew at every occurrence, the place where something fails, is left unsaid. The act of speech, assertion, statement necessarily imply leaving something out, something that escapes control of the will, that cannot be exhausted in saying, absolute otherness, thereby generating new fluxes of interpretants which in turn resist control and evade the will, intention, purpose, consciousness, authority of the ultimate word. Language as the condition of the unconscious. Language is not a nomenclature. If this were the case, translation across languages would be immediate in the sense that each word would have a corresponding concept in its own language and its immediate correlate in another language. But this is not the case. The relation is not between words and preconceived ideas, direct and unambiguous. To assert, to utter, to perform through words, through speech acts, means at once to repress, to remove, to silence – this is clearly revealed by such phenomena as dreaming, word play, artistic discourse, and symptoms.

If repression, removal, silence, the unsaid, the shadow, absolute otherness is the other face of the word, this has consequences for the act of translation, as interlingual translation makes particularly evident. On the one hand, mathesis universalis, common speech, invariability, semiosic fluxes, synechism, energy, progress, succession, return, transitive writing, transcription, continuity; on the other hand, mathesis singularis, uniqueness, otherness, fragmentation, death, loss, intransitive writing, variability, unrepeatability, discontinuity. All these factors interact and overlap, evoking each other in uncertain, ambiguous relations of chiaroscuro, diffraction. An act of forgetfulness, oblivion, neglection, a slip, omission, oversight, inadvertence shows how language is discord and not harmony, dissidence and not systems of oppositve pairs. The self is not master in his/her ‘own’ home, the speaker is not at home in his/her ‘own’ mother-tongue, but is instead spoken by another language. The speaker, the self is nomadic. We are always ‘strangers to ourselves’ (Kristeva), such that what we share and have in common is the very condition of strangeness, absolute otherness.

The question we must continually ask ourselves concerns the very nature of translation, translation in what sense?, and what is the relation between translating and interpreting? To translate is not to decodify, nor for that matter is language a code. As explained by Armando Verdiglione (who has invented what he calls ‘cyphermatics’), “the code is a pre-linguistic hypostasis” (see the epilogue dedicated to the problem of translation in his book La psicanalisi questa mia avventura, 1997). In other words, the code presupposes sense as the condition for language, sense as given outside language, codified and decodified by language. Instead, language is the condition for sense. Citing Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale, Verdiglione claims that if words represented preexisting concepts, each word would have an exact correlate for sense from one language to another, but this is not the case. There is no such thing as a metalanguage in the sense of a language of languages. Furthermore to the extent that to translate is to say, translation too must reckon with signifying residues, with the material that evades possession, that is not said, with signifying otherness (see Petrilli 1990, 1998, 2004).

Together with the concept of translatability, the concept of biligualism, of the bilingual speaker also needs to be revisited, interrogated. We could even go as far as to claim that there is no such thing as a bilingual speaker, as paradoxical as this may seem. Bilingualism presupposes the existence of a language that mediates, a language of languages, a translinguistic code, that establishes equivalences, convertibility, biunivocal correspondences. But the problem is not that of establishing and identifying convergences and correspondences between one language and another. When translating from one language into another, the relation is not of conversion, of transformation of the same into the same (we have stated that languages do not communicate directly), but of re-reading, re-writing, re-interpreting, re-creating, of shifting creatively and critically from one language into another, whether across different national languages, or within the same language, where it is above all the iconic dimension of signs that regulates signifying processes. The dynamics, as described above, is between the similar and the dissimilar, the known and the unknowable: the same other. Obviously, the iconic dimension of signifying processes plays a central role in translation processes. Like the oral word, writing, reading, interpreting, responding, translating too inevitably occurs in the deferral of signifiers. Translation is functional to the claim to a mathesis universalis that absorbs the unique act of saying, listening, interpreting. In psychoanalysis, in “American psychoanalysism,” interpretation passes through a form of translation that is based on a code, and becomes decodification. But the code of translatability is founded on the untranslatable, on the other, autrui. The principle of translatability must be interrogated in light of the untranslatable.

The code of translatability may attempt to render translation automatic by canceling the other, by homologating the other to self, by asserting the principle of totalization, authority, authoriality, by canceling writing. However, the translation process is regulated by the logic, or, better, the dia-logic of otherness (on the concepts of dialogism and otherness in relation to signs, see Ponzio 2006a)); it emerges from and is oriented towards difference. In so far as this is the case, translation is interpretation, writing, intransitive writing, re-creation: neither translation word by word, letter by letter (verbo verbum reddere, critiqued by Cicero), nor translation on the basis of sense (St. Jerome’s non verbum de verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu, recalled above). The experience of translation, like writing, intransitive writing, occurs with material, it is a material process involving letters, the deferral of signifiers. Translation encounters the twists of language, its equivocations, the indirectness, the obliqueness of its interpretive trajectories. Whether we translate “by the letter” or “on the basis of sense,” we cannot leave the letter, the specificity of the signifier, its materiality, which makes difference in terms of that which cannot be homologated, leveled, or equalized. We cannot translate the letter, for the materiality of the signifier, the letter, that is, signifying material, is not translatable. Decisions play on ambiguities but not to dispel them, given that nothing can be decided, but to evidence their signifying import, the signifying import of interpreteds and interpretants, which is further enhanced through the deferral among interpreted-interpretants across other languages. Therefore a translation is active, non transparent. It is connected with the work of re-reading and re-writing, re-creating. Canonical translation is based on the code, convention, authority, authoriality, respect. Contrary to such an orientation, the task of the translatant is not to give the impression that it is not a translation, but rather to convey the uniqueness, the specificity of the interpretant, its unrepeatability, the sense of its intranslatability. Translation is construed in the specificity of the signifier and in this sense is ‘by the letter’. As such the translative procedure is dominated by iconicity whose signifying value is an ‘effect’ of language provoked by the ‘original,’ by virtue of its quality, to evoke Peirce.







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