26 - 2014

As if: truth and fiction in translation theory

Ian MacKenzie


Chesterman (1997) set out a “Popperian” theory of translation according to which translators aiming for the perfect translation resemble scientists seeking objective knowledge and truth. Yet Kuhn (1962/2012) showed how Popper’s account of science does not adequately describe periods of “normal” science, but only infrequent, “revolutionary,” paradigm changes. Moreover, both science and the theory and practice of translation depend on many useful “fictions” as defined by Hans Vaihinger (1924): constructs that are known to be false but which prove useful. Fictional notions to which translators often have recourse include lexical and conceptual equivalence; the translator as a coordinative bilingual with different conceptual representations in the source and target languages; and the implied reader. This article outlines how equivalence is only partial (as each word in a translation pair is likely to have aspects of meaning specific to one language); how proficient bicultural translators are likely to be compound bilinguals with a single integrated conceptual system; and how a reader without the translator’s conceptual system or mental lexicon will probably understand words differently. But as Venuti (2013) points out, translation involves exorbitant gain as well as irreparable loss, as it unavoidably releases meanings that work only in the translating language.


Translation, truth, fictions, equivalence, bilingualism

December 9, 2014
  26 - 2014