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Translation in History lecture series: Roman Jakobson and the translation of poetic language

By ucyow3c, on 11 January 2016

pencil-iconWritten by Tania Castro Rodea (UCL Translation Studies)

Roman Jakobson

On Thursday 26 November, we welcomed Professor Jean Boase-Beier (University of East Anglia) to UCL as part of the Translation in History lecture series. Her talk, ‘Roman Jakobson and the Translation of Poetic Language’, focused on the key ideas of this influential linguist and some of their implications for translation.

Professor Boase-Beier emphasised that Jakobson did not propose any particular way of translating; he did not give a set of instructions. But what he did say is of use because it can help us “think around translation, think about practice, and what consequences that has.” Boase-Beier also pointed out that, among Jakobson’s articles that are important for translation, some do not even mention translation, and so it is advisable to be aware of the wider context of his thinking, to know how he developed his ideas, particularly if we want to understand what already well-known quotes really mean.

In this regard, Boase-Beier posits that many people do not understand the most famous statement of Jakobson, that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” To explain this statement, she used an example where the words cat, kitten and feline were offered as options. When we select, she said, we choose from words that designate similar things. But once the word ‘cat’ is selected, this is transferred to the axis of combination, where the choice is not based on things, but on the word selected and its similarities with other words. We say “the cat sat on the mat,” not because the cat has similarities with the mat, but because of the similarities between the words: they rhyme.

Boase-Beier also highlighted three key ideas of Jakobson which can be applied to the translation of poetic language, a topic widely discussed in her own work: that literature and linguistics must be studied together; language (including poetic language) must be studied in a multilingual context; and language (including poetic language) is characterised by equivalence and difference. Following on these ideas, Boase-Beier stressed that a language cannot be seen as being separate or isolated from other languages, because all languages have influences from other languages.

Accordingly, translation does not happen after a language or a text comes into existence, but is already a part of it, so the notion of language implies the idea of translation. Hence, she argued that “we can only study what happens in translation within a multilingual context.” This means that we not only translate words, but also connections, and that is poetics.

Boase-Beier’s latest thoughts around translation, following Professor Kirsten Malmkjaer’s (2004) translational stylistics, have led her to use the term “reading as translation” to denote the action of reading the target text in the knowledge that a source text exists. She also argues that ‘translational poetics’ means reconstructing the choices that informed the target text; getting a sense of what was behind the text, “what made it be the way it is.” Here, both the cognitive context of the translator and the author (everything they know, believe and think) are at the core of the analysis, because the translator, from his cognitive context, tries to reconstruct the author’s cognitive context.

The stage was set, then, for the main discussion of the evening: patterns, relations or connections reconstructed by the translator. Patterns may be semantic, syntactic, etymological, cultural, intertextual or of sound, for example, with alliteration or rhyming. Patterns may involve words that are not, in fact, related, but which speakers think are related. And several patterns may involve the same word.

To illustrate the points made, Boase-Beier used a German poem by Volker von Törne, Stunde der Wölfe, and her translation of this poem into English. She explained some etymological patterns, and more interestingly, some cultural patterns evident because some words included in the poem are commonly used to speak about the Holocaust and to express Nazi imagery. She also identified a pattern of intertextuality because a similar phrase was used in another poem about the Holocaust.

This analysis of patterns and connections was really thought-provoking and certainly expanded the ‘cognitive context’ of the audience. Another excellent lecture in this series!

Find out more about upcoming Translation in History lectures.

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