A classic article in communication studies is “The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language” by Michael J. Reddy (1979). In our way of thinking about language, we seem to have an image in mind of packaging our thoughts into words and then sending those words across to someone else who unpacks them to get the meaning. Reddy shows how pervasive this conduit metaphor is in our speaking and thinking about language. He is shocked (shocked!) that we so easily give ourselves over so completely to something so insubstantial and illogical as a metaphor to shape how we conceive of linguistic communication. If we really understood the nature of meaning and language better, we wouldn’t say things like “He can’t get across very well what he is thinking,” or “Let me give you an idea of what I have in mind,” or “I can’t find anything of significance in this essay,” or “Why don’t you put your thoughts down on paper?” George Lakoff adds an interesting commentary in his own article in the same volume (Metaphor and Thought, Second edition, edited by Andrew Ortony): “Reddy showed… that the locus of metaphor is thought, not language, that metaphor is a major and indispensable part of our ordinary, conventional way of conceptualizing the world, and that our everyday behavior reflects our metaphorical understanding of experience.” Shortly thereafter (1980) Lakoff, along with Mark Johnson, more completely described the significance of conceptual metaphors in Metaphors We Live By. [I’m probably using the conduit metaphor all over the place here without even realizing it.]
I think this is a fair way of putting this conceptual metaphor concept: In the way we think, the analogical is just as important as—if not more important than—the logical. Well, it’s probably WAY more important, actually. But for those of us who are more analytical, it is good to be aware of our metaphors. Which brings us to metaphors for translation. What is translation? Etymologically-speaking, it is “carrying across.” Isn’t that a metaphor? [Come to think of it, what is metaphor? At its etymological core, isn’t “metaphor” a metaphor as well? How can we escape this!?]
I like how the King James translation says, “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:12-13), and, “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5). Which use of “translate/translation” is metaphor here, and which literal?
I was once privileged to hear the Translation Studies scholar Andrew Chesterman give a presentation on metaphors used to conceptualize translation, and to have a chance to discuss it with him afterwards. He invited his listeners to analyze and tell what metaphors they use in thinking about translation. As I recall, there was not any one answer that was supposed to be correct, nor did Chesterman sniff at the whole idea of conceptualizing metaphorically. He just wanted to get us to think—and I’m trying to get you to think. What about an image of translation as someone carrying something across to someone else, as the Latin suggests? What about translation as giving someone a gift? What about translation as bridge building? That’s cool. See this picture I took of a poster that says, Chi traduce costruisce ponti,” or, “Who translates builds bridges.”
A well known metaphor associated with translation is to think about the language you are translating into as the “target” language. I suppose if you translate well, that means you have hit the bullseye. If we talk about a “receptor audience,” I guess we’re using that conduit metaphor that Reddy wrote about. I have to confess that I use this kind of language all the time. J.K. Gayle outed me in his comment when I wrote in my last blog post about “pinpointing” a target audience. That probably was a poor choice of words. I think I was trying to avoid using a word as ordinary as “determining.” And thanks to Gayle at the same time for pointing out (not pinpointing) that from a Chinese perspective, translation involves “host” and “guest” languages. Another metaphor.
I see interpretation and the reading of a text as having an important connection with translation. In Truth and Method (1975) Hans-Georg Gadamer described the reading of a text in terms of a widening of horizons, and a fusion of horizons between author and reader: “Gadamer said that a text has its own horizon, or vantage point and all that can be seen from that vantage point, and a reader brings his own horizon to the text. Meaning is the result of the reader’s horizon being altered or widened by exposure to the horizon of the text.” This image of horizons coverging brings to my mind the horizon controls I have seen in small airplanes. Paul Ricoeur uses the image of musical compositions and their performance: “Another metaphor Ricoeur uses is that a text is like a musical score that only provides for the potential for music—or meaning—until it is performed—or read. You can either analyze a text (like analyzing a musical composition), or you can try to absorb what the text has to say (like performing a musical piece). A reading of a text is a performance of it, and not all performances will be the same.” (Note that both of these quotes are my own words and interpretation, from an unpublished paper presented at a conference in 2009.)
Back to Italian, we’re all familiar with the saying, based on a play on words in Italian, that “The translator is a traitor.” There seems to be a widespread sentiment among some people in relation to Bible translation to the effect that thinking about what the source text means and expressing those ideas in the garb of another language amounts to betraying the text, and the least offensive solution is to give a word for word literal translation and force the reader to try to see the text from the viewpoint of the speakers of the original language. Maybe the idea here is of someone from one culture, while in another country, dressing himself as a member of the host culture and illegitimately passing himself off as one of them, perhaps for subversive reasons. If you are in another country, maybe the only honest thing to do is to stand out as a foreigner. Or what about the metaphor that a language or a text “resists” translation? I get the picture of the French underground resisting the Nazi occupation. Or a body at rest resisting being put into motion. If resistance is variable, perhaps it can be measured, as in an electrical circuit.
As I understand it, developments in the European Union challenge the basic ideas of source language and target language in translation. In European Union legislature, there is not supposed to be any primary or privileged language, and so when a law appears, it is supposed to show up in all the different languages simultaneously, without there being any particular source language. I get the picture of scattered seeds all growing into plants simultaneously.
When it comes to Bible translation, my guiding metaphor is that of the incarnation: The Word became flesh. I see the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in a lot of different shades of flesh and a lot of different sounding languages, to speak to, and act on behalf of, a lot of different people.
Well, this essay is too long. I should have packaged my thoughts into fewer words.