Ideas that add up #129

Translation presupposes not the loss of the ineffable in any given act of interlingual mediation such as the translation of poetry, but the irrelevance of the ineffable to acts of communication. Any thought a person can have, the philosopher Jerrold Katz argued, can be expressed by some sentence in any natural language; and anything which can be expressed in one language can also be expressed in another. What cannot be expressed in any human language (opinions vary as to whether such things are delusional, or foundational) lies outside the boundaries of translation and, for Katz, outside the field of language too. This is his axiom of effability. One of the truths of translation — one of the truths that translation teaches — is that everything is effable.

David Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the meaning of everything

So, anything can be translated, just as anything can be rephrased. Not perfectly, but well enough. But what of the stuff between the words, the poetry, that unclaimed ground where fields of meaning overlap and interact, shading into one another and making way for unworded imagination?

If I’ve got this bit about the axiom right, Bellos is saying that any thought can be expressed in words, and anything uttered in words can, with enough supporting information, be translated into any language. That incommunicable residue between the words relates to personal sense and experience and is not itself a kind of “thought”. It only becomes a thought once we word it up, at which point it necessarily becomes communicable — and therefore translatable.

To briefly test it out. Hemingway’s famously short, short story (though Wikipedia disappointingly says that the link with that author is unsubstantiated):

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn

There’s a poignancy (something ineffable perhaps?) in those six words that doesn’t ask and doesn’t need to be spelled out. But it could be spelled out, if so desired, in the form of questions or explanations elaborating on the basic scenario, then translated into another language, then distilled back down to some comparably economical and suggestive string of words in the form of a small-ad appropriate to that language. First eliminating, then recreating, the ineffable.

Or Basho’s haiku:

furu [old] + ike [pond] + ya / / kawazu [frog] + tobikomu [jumping into] / / mizu [water] + no [‘s] + oto [sound]

Which among dozens of English translations, can appear as:

The old pond / / A frog jumps in / / Plop!

Again, making effable the seemingly ineffable for long enough to carry out the dirty deed of translation, then out of respect for the original patching back in a dose of ineffability. 

But that’s quite enough on the effing ineffable. 

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