Culture and Translation

By Torop, Peeter | Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué, February 2010 | Go to article overview
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Culture and Translation


Torop, Peeter, Applied Semiotics/Semiotique appliqué


Any analysis of translation and culture can only begin by providing definitions for both concepts. Presumably, both concepts can be intuitively grasped by most readers of this article. Nevertheless, providing unambiguous definitions for them is well-nigh impossible. In the humanities and social sciences, this situation is frequent: rigorous scientific study is often conducted without first providing clear definitions for core concepts. This is in fact a general feature of the various methodologies of the disciplines. The language that disciplines use to mediate their results--metalanguage--develops alongside the disciplines and their research methods. Metalanguages can be treated as univocal only operationally, by tailoring them specifically for concrete research.

Translation and culture in unison form a conceptual pair that brings together different disciplines, mainly those of culture studies and philology. Contacts between these disciplines have an impact on how both translation and culture are defined. Disciplines associated with anthropology are essential for culture studies, and those connected to translation studies are important for philology, and the two are methodologically combined, balanced and generalized by cultural semiotics and its sub-discipline, the semiotics of translation.

The proliferation of definitions of culture and their frequent disparity clearly indicate that the principles of defining culture are numerous and sometimes very different. Numerous indeed, as we still cannot speak of the science of culture as a single discipline. The second reason why we still lack a uniform discipline of science of culture is the heterogeneity of culture itself. Culture, as the cause of all its definitions, is such a complex object of study that it is near impossible to list and rank all culture-related disciplines by their importance. Methodologist P. Feyerabend (1993) uses the notion of epistemological anarchism to describe the randomness and lack of hierarchy in the choice of research methods, i.e. all disciplines and all methods are equally valid for the study of culture and we have no reason to regard one as better than the other. It is not even really possible, since even the strictest scientific analysis is but one approach to culture, which cannot in any case rule out the others. Thus, the study of one and the same culture gives rise to numerous and different views and snapshots of that culture, and the analysis of culture as a fragmented object of study becomes the analysis of cultures. Essentially, we can speak of two fundamental pluralities--the plurality of the scientific research methods is complementary to the plurality of culture as a complex object of study.

However, the notions of culture that are born out of different disciplines and viewpoints can hamper the comprehensive understanding of culture, since the synthesis or complementary linking of those notions is nearly utopic, as it would be to be aware of all the qualities of culture:

Culture is the product of interacting human minds, and hence a science of culture will be a science of the most complex phenomenon on Earth. It will also be a science that must be built on interdisciplinary foundations including genetics, neuroscience, individual development, ecology and evolutionary biology, psychology and anthropology. In other words, a complete explanation of culture, if such a thing is ever possible, is going to comprise a synthesis of all human science. Such a synthesis poses significant conceptual and methodological problems, but also difficulties of another kind for those contributing to this science. Scholars from different disciplines are going to have to be tolerant of one another, open to ideas from other areas of knowledge. (Plotkin 2001: 91)

Thus, there are two discernible tendencies in culture-studying disciplines. On one hand, the scholars try to ascertain what exactly is being studied and how it is being studied when a particular approach is applied; and what can possibly be the proper field of study for a general science of culture.

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