Hermeneutics and Translation Theory
Become a member of TranslationDirectory.com at just
$8 per month (paid per year)
Abstract: Translation theory was once strictly
confined within the scope of linguistics for translation
was merely referred to as a conversion of languages,
from the source language into the target language.
Nevertheless, when research is carried further
and deeper, meaning is found not only associated
with the language or the text but also with the
author and the reader, which form the tripartite
in understanding of the appropriate meaning of
any text. This paper starts with the discussion
of the relationship of hermeneutics and literary
translation and then goes on to propose that a
perfect theory of translation should be an overall
concern of all the three aforementioned factors.
Key words: hermeneutics; translation; meaning;
semiotics; reception theory.
Why is hermeneutics relevant to translation?
Because there is no translation without understanding
and interpreting texts, which is the initial step
in any kinds of translation including literary
translation of course. Inappropriate interpretation
inevitably results in inadequate translations,
if not absolutely wrong translations. But how
do we understand?
Hermeneutics, briefly, can be defined as the
science and methodology of interpreting texts.
The philosophical background on which hermeneutics
is based is demonstrated by the forerunners in
this area such as Gadamer. According to Gadamer,
words, that is, talk, conversation, dialogue,
question and answer, produce worlds. In contrast
to a traditional, Aristotelian view of language
where spoken words represent mental images and
written words are symbols for spoken words, Gadamerian
perspective on linguistics emphasizes a fundamental
unity between language and human existence. Interpretation
can never be divorced from language or objectified.
Because language comes to humans with meaning,
interpretations and understandings of the world
can never be prejudice-free. As human beings,
one cannot step outside of language and look at
language or the world from some objective standpoint.
Language is not a tool which human beings manipulate
to represent a meaning-full world; rather, language
forms human reality. (quoted from Bullock, 1997)
Another important figure in this sphere is Schleiermacher
whose concept of understanding includes empathy
as well as intuitive linguistic analysis. He believed
that understanding is not merely the decoding
of encoded information, interpretation is built
upon understanding, and it has a grammatical,
as well as a psychological moment. The grammatical
thrust places the text within a particular literature
(or language) and reciprocally uses the text to
redefine the character of that literature. The
psychological thrust is more naive and linear.
In it, the interpreter reconstructs and explicates
the subject's motives and implicit assumptions.
Thus Schleiermacher claimed that a successful
interpreter could understand the author as well,
as or even better than, the author understood
himself because the interpretation highlights
hidden motives and strategies. (quoted from the
Dilthey, initially a follower of Schleiermacher,
went further. He began to emphasize that texts
and actions were as much products of their times
as expressions of individuals, and their meanings
were consequently constrained by both an orientation
to values of their period and a place in the web
of their authors' plans and experiences. Therefore
meanings are delineated by the author's world-view
reflecting a historical period and social context.
Understanding (verstehen), the basis for methodological
hermeneutics, involves tracing a circle from text
to the author's biography and immediate historical
circumstances and back again. Interpretation,
or the systematic application of understanding
to the text, reconstructs the world in which the
text was produced and places the text in that
Modern ideas on hermeneutics hold that the writer
may be an editor or a redactor and that he may
have used sources. In considering this aspect
of discourse one must take into account the writer's
purpose in writing as well as his cultural milieu.
Secondly, one must consider the narrator in the
writing who is usually different from the writer.
Sometimes he is a real person, sometimes fictional.
One must determine his purpose in speaking and
his cultural milieu, taking into consideration
the fact that he may be omnipresent and omniscient.
One must also take into consideration the narratee
within the story and how he hears. But even then
one is not finished. One must reckon with the
person or persons to whom the writing is addressed;
the reader, not always the same as the one to
whom the writing is addressed; and later readers.
Thirdly, one must consider the setting of writing,
the genre (whether poetry, narrative, prophecy,
etc.), the figures of speech; the devices used,
and, finally, the plot. (Hanko, 1991)
Following the above ideas, we realize that understanding
and interpreting the meaning of a discourse involves
actually three factors: the author (writer), the
text (or speech) and the reader.
My Understanding of Translation
Translation, according to Nida (1984) consists
in reproducing in the receptor language the closest
natural equivalent of the source language massage,
first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms
of style. The Chinese cihai (unabridged dictionary)
defines translation as: expressing in another
language the meaning carried in the original language
(my translation from Chinese). Here meaning is
apparently in the limelight of translation, which
is why adequate understanding and interpretation
is always an iron criterion in judging whether
a piece of translation succeeds or fails. Style
is another indispensable factor involved in translation
but cannot be treated in this paper for it is
not directly relevant to the present topic.
I believe however meaning is never concrete and
tangible as many may claim and translation of
meaning can only achieve a sort of approximation
instead of exactness as is believed by some scholars
working in the field. I reckon that when the translated
meaning produces the same or a similar response
in the target reader or listener as it does the
original reader, the translation is successful
by my standard. Newmark (1982) says that it is
preferable to handle the issue in terms of equivalence
of intended effects, thus linking judgments about
what the translator seeks to achieve to judgments
about the intended meaning of the ST speaker/writer.
In other words I do not seek to reproduce the
exactness of the original but always bear in my
mind the rule of having the same effect on the
target reader. This assertion is grounded on the
fact that it is believed by many that translation
is itself an end, serving a certain purpose. When
it comes to a different point of view-translation
is also a medium, or a process, I have something
different to say. Simply put, translation involves
decoding of the original discourse and encoding
of the target discourse, both done by the translator
or interpreter. During this process, absolute
faithfulness or accuracy is but an illusion, or
best, an impossible idealistic pursuit. To achieve
the maximum effect or impact of the original discourse
and to avoid failure of communication, accommodations
are made for a variety of reasons. (See my paper
Accommodations in Translation for reference, at
In a word, translation in my opinion is both a
process and a product. Research therefore ought
to include all factors and elements concerned
about them both.
The Three Factors All Considered
In the following discussion I will concentrate
on the development of translation theory on the
Centering on the author, there has been a lot
of followers who preach that in literary translation
a thorough study of the author's life experience,
historical and social background is of paramount
necessity for any translator to ensure interpretation
of the author's meaning or intention is most adequate.
There have been many articles and theses on evaluation
of a literary work, digging quite in depth those
factors about the author to make sure the interpretation
of the work is the closest. For example, in translating
Shakespeare into Chinese many would draw heavily
from history. "The 16th century in England
was a period of the breaking up of feudal relations
and the establishing of the foundations of capitalism."(Wu,
1996: p71) "Together with the development
of bourgeois relationships and formation of the
English national state this period is marked by
a flourishing of national culture known as the
Renaissance" which originally indicated "a
revival of classical arts and sciences after the
dark ages of medieval obscurantism." Shakespeare
as a humanist held his chief interest not in ecclesiastical
knowledge, but in man, his environment and doings
and "bravely fought for the emancipation
of man from the tyranny of the church and religious
dogmas." (ibid, p72-73) He was a dramatist,
poet, actor and proprietor and he produced 37
plays, two narrative poems and 154 sonnets. All
these peripheral facts hinted meaning penned by
Shakespeare and under his pen the medieval story
assumed new meaning and significance.
This trend of determining meaning in a certain
work or of the a certain author was of high popularity
in China and still is, to some extent. In judging
translation, therefore, the more abundant materials
one has, the more say he has and the more he is
Such an approach of course is quite valuable and
truthful, but only partially truthful for there
is another factor to be considered---the text.
The stress on text results in the supreme status
of the structuralism and later deconstruction
in translation theory. This school accuses the
abovementioned group of staying far away from
the essential element and foundation of interpreting
the meaning of the original. They hold that as
soon as the author has finished the writing the
meaning is fixed in the text and any 'guess' away
from the text should be abandoned completely.
Thus when two translations are compared the grammar,
diction and sentence structures are valued above
anything else. To support themselves, semiotics
is loaned to argue against the 'author regime'.
Academically Semiotics can be defined broadly
as a domain of investigation that explores the
nature and function of signs as well as the systems
and processes underlying signification, expression,
representation, and communication. (Perron, 1997)
Literary semiotics can be seen as a branch of
the general science of signs that studies a particular
group of texts within verbal texts in general.
Starting with the definition of "semiosis"
as a process in which signs function as vehicles,
interpretants, and interpreters, Morris determines
three areas of complementary investigation: syntactics,
which studies the relation of sign-vehicles within
sign systems; semantics, the relation of signs
to objects they represent; and pragmatics, the
relation of signs to interpreters. Hence, if one
considers literary texts in terms of semiosis,
they can be defined as syncretic sign systems
encompassing a syntactic dimension that can be
analyzed on the phonological level (e.g., the
specific sound patterns organizing the text) and
on the level of narrative syntax; the semantic
level (the content elements of the text); and
the pragmatic or communicative context (addresser
and addressee). In short, the first two dimensions
stress the structural features of texts and are
concerned with their expression and content forms,
whereas the other dimension stresses the signifying
process and concentrates on analyzing their generative
processes and interrelations with other texts.
(ibid) Armed with this theory, the 'text regime'
holds their battleground rather strongly.
Here the process of interpretation seems to end
satisfactorily, yet the last step is indispensable,
the involvement of the reader. Text ought not
be treated as a closed formal network. Without
the reader the meaning is not communicated. And
if communication fails what follows naturally
is the failure of translation.
This aspect does not attract attention until
quite recently. Owing to the above schools the
interpretation of a certain work used to be looked
on as fixed and established by authority who have
done thorough research about the author and the
detailed analysis of the text at hand. So any
different interpretation tends to be strongly
attacked, denying the fact that naturally different
readers may well have different interpretations.
To argue with persuasiveness, reception theory
is introduced in translation theory which is defined
as the "approach to literature that concerns
itself first and foremost with one or more readers'
actualization of the text." (Lernout, 1994)
The most significant figure concerning this theory
is Hans Robert Jauss and he is heavily quoted.
The 'reader regime' comes into prominence.
Jauss's work in the late seventies, gathered in
his Asthetische Erfahrung und literarische Hermeneutik
in 1982 (the first part was issued in 1977 and
translated into English as Aesthetic Experience
and Literary Hermeneutics in 1982), moved toward
a more hermeneutical interest in the aesthetic
experience itself. Jauss distinguishes three basic
experiences: a productive aesthetic praxis (poiesis),
a receptive praxis (aisthesis), and a communicative
praxis (katharsis), and he claims that a detailed
study of these three elements can help literary
history steer a course between an exclusively
aesthetic and an exclusively sociological perspective.
Central in this new phase of Jauss's thinking
is the third, communicative aesthetic praxis,
which is defined as "the enjoyment of the
affects as stirred by speech or poetry which can
bring about both a change in belief and the liberation
of his mind in the listener or the spectator"
(92). Important here is both the active part of
the recipient of the aesthetic object and the
two opposites this definition avoids: the unmediated
losing oneself in the object and the sentimental
self-indulgence by the subject in itself. The
aesthetic experience can have three functions
in society: it can create norms, simply pass on
existing norms, or refuse to conform to the existing
norms. (ibid) With this as a point of departure,
Chinese translation circles, especially those
of the middle-age generation, set out a campaign
of retranslation of the classical works which
used to be considered too steep and high a mountain
Re-translation of the same work is now being done
by quite a few translators, who boldly do the
translation in accordance with their own interpretation
and with originality and creativity without fear
of being ferociously attacked by the so-called
authority. In addition, literary translation itself
I firmly believe is more an artistic endeavor
than a mechanic linguistic conversion as art is
always individual and immune to the so-called
The three factors each have its followers and
advocates in the Chinese translation circles today
and the disputes and arguments still go on. I,
a Taoist philosophical follower, believe the 'oneness'
which in this present case means the organic combination
of the three aspects, complementary to one another.
From the above discussion, it is hoped to manifest
that proper understanding of a literary discourse
is the first and foremost step of any translation
and to understand it correctly the three factors,
namely, the author, the text and the reader must
all be counted in so that meaning is best determined
and a perfect piece of translation is produced.
Notes: As I am blind to German, I am not sure
if my quotations are correctly spelt. I apologize
for any mistakes, though the German terms are
but copied exactly from the sources I have cited.
1. Bullock, Jeffrey F. 1997. "Preaching in
a Postmodern World: Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics
as Homiletical Conversation".
3. Hanko, Herman C. Issues in Hermeneutics Protestant
Reformed Theological Journals of April and November,
1990, and April and November, 1991.
4. Eugene Nida, On Translation, Translation Publishing
5. Newmark, p.p. 1982. Approaches to Translation,
Pearson Education Limited, London.
6. Wu, Weiren. 1996. History and Anthology of
English Literature. Foreign Language Teaching
and Research Press. Beijing.
7. Perron, Paul. 1997. Semiotics: As a Bridge
Between the Humanities and the Sciences. Trade
Paper, Legas Publishing.
8. Lernout's source is cited from the web. www.press.jhu.edu/books
9. Shi, Aiwei. 2004. Accommodations in Translation.
Submit your article!
Read more articles - free!
Read sense of life articles!
this article to your colleague!
more translation jobs? Click here!
agencies are welcome to register here - Free!
translators are welcome to register here - Free!
Please see some ads as well as other content from TranslationDirectory.com: