Saturday, July 25, 2009


What, if anything, is innate about translating?

An early paper about Natural Translation bore the title ‘Translation as an Innate Skill’ (Harris and Sherwood, 1978). Its authors were rash to use the term ‘innate’, but that was in the days when Chomsky’s nativism was fashionable among linguists. The great Language Instinct Debate was yet to come. Today, after Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994) for nativism and Sampson (Educating Eve, 1997) for its denial, we can only admit that neither side has overwhelming proof. Personally, I opt for the middle view: that language acquisition involves culturally determined language skills, apprehended by a biologically determined faculty that responds to them.

But let us, for the sake of argument, assume that something is inherited that enables even young children to begin translating spontaneously if they are being brought up in a bilingual environment to which they respond. My question is this. Might that something be specifically dedicated to translating? Or is it something more general and translation is only a specialised application of it?

Translation is conversion. We are aware of it as conversion of thoughts or meanings from one language to a different language. But as the semiotician Alexander Ludskanov pointed out long ago, the languages, the meanings and the thoughts are all represented symbolically in our brains, and what is converted there is symbols from one sign system to another.

Now let’s consider something else that we convert in our minds. I have to cope every day with several currencies: euros, Canadian dollars, American dollars, pounds sterling, etc. When I see something priced in euros, my mind spontaneously converts the amount to the currency that is most useful to me for purposes of comparison, which is Canadian dollars. It doesn’t matter whether the amounts are perceived in words or in numerals, written or spoken. It is the mental image of the amount or size that I convert, along with judgements and emotions about it like ‘expensive’; not the words for it, which are of no importance.

However, it might be said that currency systems are still languages, albeit formal ones. So let’s consider an example that is further away.

I sometimes drive a large car in Canada with an automatic transmission. Canadians drive on the right, and their car controls are placed accordingly. And sometimes I drive a smaller car in England with a manual gearshift and built for driving on the left. I also have to conform to different traffic rules in the two countries, but we’ll leave that out of it. I could say that I’m a bifunctional or biprocedural driver, and – having lived half my life in each country – I would not be able to tell you which way is dominant in me.

Now I take along with me to England a Canadian friend who has never driven anything but an automatic and on the right, and we are going to use a manual shift car. I have to instruct him. It would be totally inadequate for me to explain the differences to him and tell him what he has to do. I have to show him, by gesture and example, and guide him while he learns. The kind of memory I need to draw on is mostly motor and visual, for I have rarely seen the actions described in words. I can convert for him, and after a short while he can convert for himself.

And so it is with many other things, although some take longer to learn. Changing from playing the piano to playing the same music on a violin, for instance.

So here are my hypothetical conclusions:

1) The human mind is capable of doing everything in more ways than one, and using several languages is just an example of this versatility.

2) The mind can switch at will from one way to another, with minimal inconvenience or interference once we know both ways even a little.

3) The mind can convert or, in an extended sense, translate an action from one way of doing it to another way. In the examples above, since there are no cars or violins in our brains, it must be a conversion between the symbolic representations of them.

(The mind can also compare the product of a conversion with the original, and judge its equivalence. But that’s a whole other story.)

So are natural translators born with a ‘translation capability’, or is it rather a general ‘conversion capability’ that is applied to languages?

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