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Translation as a Psycho-Semiotic Phenomenon

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The article sketches the outlines of a theoretical framework for the analysis of translation of literary texts, viewed as psycho-semiotic phenomenon and based on evaluation of earlier attempts in this direction, and on the results of a psycholinguistic empirical study of translations. Central to this framework is the recent insight that the human cerebral hemisphere functional asymmetry somehow plays a role in structuring the fictional text by its author and in its processing by the interpreter. It is argued that the texts of modernism and post-modernism contain information blocks describing a character’s perception of events in altered states of consciousness. This model helps to explain how a translator’s inappropriate linguistic choice may influence the target language reader’s aesthetic reaction.

1. Introduction

The dual code hypothesis introduced by A. Paivio (1965) serves as a starting point of our investigation. The author claims that while processing a text, the interpreter simultaneously operates with two codes, i.e. verbal-logical and concrete-imaginal. The theory is suggested by a number of experiments that reveal the human evaluation of nouns in terms of their degree of concreteness and meaningfulness (Paivio, Juille, Madigan 1968).

This dualism of world perception is caused by the human physiology, notably, by the division of the brain into two hemispheres, each having its own function. Works of R.W. Sperry (1968), Yu. Lotman (2004) on the cerebral hemispheres' functional asymmetry constitute a powerful foundation for comprehending the organization of the brain in the matter of information processing. After examining the function of the left hemisphere (in right-handers) the scholars conclude that it processes verbal matter of the text, establishing logical ties between propositions. The principle underlying this process is the analysis of a discrete linear temporal sequence by the interpreter. By contrast, the right hemisphere functions primarily as a synthesizing analogous device, processing imaginal information in a non-discrete and integral way.

A number of neurolinguistic experiments made with patients with a "split" brain (with one disconnected cerebral hemisphere) show different speech characteristics (Balonov, Deglin 1979). The speech of patients with right hemisphere aphasia is rich in words, respondents are talkative and prefer to use more verbs, logical connectives, pronouns and function words other than nouns and adjectives. People with left hemisphere aphasia, on the other hand, despite the established fact of localization of both language production center (Broca's area) and interpretation center (Wernicke's area) in the left hemisphere, have the ability to speak. But their speech is characterized by a lot of interruptions, unnecessary repetitions and interjections, by avoidance of long syntactical structures. Moreover, the specific weight of nouns and adjectives is increased significantly.

Thus, the experimental data on cerebral dominance prove the idea of the divergent specialization of the two "brains". The left hemisphere is clearly responsible for language, conceptualization and verbal logical (rational) thinking. The right hemisphere, on the contrary, processes more "concrete", emotionally loaded information, i.e. images, which accompany verbal information (Zasyekin 2004). To sum up, the data support A. Paivio's dual code theory insofar as there exists of physical region in the brain which functions as a processor of one of two codes.

2. Data

The data drawn on are from four sources. The principal source are literary works "The catcher in the rye", and "Franny" by the U.S. writer J.D. Salinger, and their Ukrainian and Russian translations. Besides, "The Temple of Poseidon" by the Ukrainian writer Yu. Pokalchuk , "The calling cards" and "The tender breathing" by the Russian writer I. Bunin, along with their English translations form the primary corpus. In addition, I supplement the corpus with the sonnet "Ozymandias" by the British poet P.B. Shelley, and its three Ukrainian translations. These texts are part of a larger corpus of literary works by J.D.Salinger, I.Bunin, L.Ukrainka, S.Yesenin and Yu. Pokalchuk.

3. Methods

A discourse analysis of samples is used to identify formal and content characteristics of the prose. To reveal the ways of construction of semantic spaces by the first (native) and second (target language) readers in terms of their aesthetic response to poetic texts, psycholinguistic methods of Ch. Osgood's (1957) Semantic Differential, an association test along with content analysis is employed. The Semantic Differential is a device for measuring the affective or connotative meaning of words, also widely used for measuring attitudes towards other concepts and objects (ODP: 662). The word-association test is a technique aimed at revealing aspects of unconscious mental processes, enabling the analyst to focus on the key areas of psychological significance of a verbal stimulus for a respondent (ODP: 795). Content analysis is used for the objective description and classification of the manifest or latent subject matter of written or spoken verbal communications, usually by counting the incidence or coincidence of utterances falling into several categories (ODP: 162).

For the study of linguistic and extra-linguistic features of prosaic texts a psycho-graphological method with elements of quantitative content analysis is used. In psycho-graphological analysis not only is the original text in focus, but also its translation versions.

4. The study

4.1 Entropic vs. semiotic time

The analysis of fictional texts reveals some interesting features. The main observation is that the author, not infrequently, resorts to disintegration of the linear chronological sequence of described events. The typical example is given in Ivan Bunin's story "The tender breathing". It starts with the death of Olya Meshcherskaya, the main heroine. Then the author resumes with a depiction of her life in natural temporal order. However, the order is broken several times with a subsequent resumption of the event line. The text has a lot of digressions from the principal thread of narrative, which supply the reader with background information. At the end of the story the author is back to the scene of Olya's death. To explain the author's intentions, we should consider theories of " time ", since causal relations (events) in the text are, in effect, unfolded within the temporal structure.

To date, there exist two main theories of time. The first, traditional one, treats the concept of time as the fourth dimension which is linear, discrete, and is irreversible (anisotropic) (Reichenbach 1962). This "time" is called entropic. In this time dimension we perceive life events naturally, i.e. as a string of causal real-world relations. Another theory postulates the existence of another time dimension, which is called semiotic. The semiotic time model is cyclic and has strong associations with mythological consciousness phenomena. A predominant feature of the mythological consciousness is the absence of traditional binary oppositions of life-death, truth-lie, reality-non-reality. The reality is perceived as an endless stream of shifts from death to rebirth, from life to death, etc. It correlates with the subconscious or archaic model of reality.

4.2 Altered states of consciousness

The analysis of fiction shows the employment of two time models by the writers. Consider the example from Yu. Pokalchuk's "The Temple of Poseidon" (Pokalchuk 1998) :

Fedir was dying <...> Suddenly, from the darkness glowed an island of light, and from it appeared a sorrowful angel with dark eyes and long, fair hair. A deep, peaceful sadness radiated from him and Fedir felt sorry for him because he looked so unhappy. He moved closer to Fedir and placed his hand on Fedir's forehead, and a light shone upon Fedir and his forehead cooled from the angel's touch, and he breathed a sigh of relief and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes, he saw, soaring in the distance, above the dark clouds covering the earth, the majestic ruins of an old temple - white marble columns against the backdrop of a dark-blue, bright sky, which from a distance seemed to pour out from a similarly blue, calm ocean. They radiated warmth and wisdom, the strength of beauty, faith, and the force of life. Fedir closed his eyes and blithely fell asleep. ( Translated by M. Andryczyk )

The example above clearly represents a typical structure of the mythological model. The character's (Fedir's) perception of reality, because of the symptoms of the fatal disease, is altered. This phenomenon is described in literature as an altered state of consciousness (ASC) (Tart 1975). ASCs are treated as any abnormal form of consciousness, including derealization, depersonalization, hypnosis, oceanic feeling, peak experience, or intoxication with a hallucinogen or euphoriant drug (ODP: 26).

These states activate intuitive, irrational subconscious structures of the human psyche, non-discrete and simultaneous perception of time and reality. Human perception in ASCs is characterized by visualizing unusual images, hallucinations and the like. By describing events as viewed by Fedir, while he is in altered state of consciousness, the author makes the reader suppress the logical perception of the reality and activate the mythological "path" of thinking (consider the italicized words in the example). On the one hand, the reader is spending excessive cognitive efforts, looking for a natural succession of events. The author, however, destroys the reader's expectations two times: first, by introducing the scene of death of the main hero in the middle of the novel, and then again, when Fedir, unexpectedly, is back to life. His death was, in mythological terms, symbolic. His re-birth implies an activation of the semiotic or cyclic time model. While processing such information chunks, which are rich in imagined information, the reader relies, to a greater extent, on his/ her intuition and emotions, than on logic. The events are not developing, but are simultaneous in time and possess continuous spacial features. Thus, the interpretation of segments with imagined information involves the right hemisphere to work, which causes the reader's altered state of consciousness.

4.3 Translation of poetic texts

The structure of poetic texts often has the same characteristics. Consider the following example:

OZYMA N DIAS (by Percy B. Shelley)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The sonnet in its core contains the semiotic time model, since the events are represented in space . One can observe the cyclic manner of representation: at first Shelley introduces the scene of Ozymandias's remnants, i.e. death, then animates the king, describes his appearance, manner and habits, i.e. life. Finally the author resumes with the decay of that colossal wreck, i.e. turns to the death. Words like stand, desert, lies, stamped, boundless, stretch play a role as space indicators. In this framework, Shelley's "Ozymandias" shows a resemblance in its time model with Bunin's "The tender breathing". To analyse the poem from the translator's angle let us consider the theory of dynamic equivalence.

In his theory of dynamic equivalence in translation, Eugene Nida (1964) argues that the art of translation had outstripped the theory of translation. His work was written in an effort to provide a theoretical basis for what was already being produced. In his survey of the history of translation in the western world he writes:

The 20th century has witnessed a radical change in translation principles ( Nida 1964: 21).

Later in the same work he adds:

The present direction is toward increasing emphasis on dynamic equivalence. This represents a shift of emphasis which began during the early decades of this century" ( Nida 1964: 160).

Perhaps he was looking back to the Twentieth Century New Testament (1902) as the first effort which utilized what he chooses to label " dynamic equivalence " principles.

Following the dynamic equivalence principle, the target text is considered to be adequate to the original when the reaction of the target text reader coincides with that of the source language reader.

Accordingly, with the aim of revealing the adequacy of translations to the original in terms of the recipient's aesthetic response, we have made an experiment with the application of Osgood's Semantic Differential, a direct associative test and content analysis. The method of the semantic differential, as claimed by Osgood (1957), proves to be universal for speakers of different languages.

As a first step, 33 native English speakers estimated the poetic text (the above-mentioned Shelley's sonnet Ozymandias ) on the basis of the factors of evaluation, potency and activity. The three core scales (good-bad, strong-weak, active-passive) exemplify these factors. Each factor contained four seven-point bipolar rating scales, the end-points of which were anchored with antonymic adjectives. Scores ranged from -3 at the negative end of each scale to +3 at the positive end. The subjects were instructed to mark a chosen number. The responses showed the respondents' subjective judgment of the stimulus (text) and reflected their semantic space content.

As second step, 37 native Ukrainian speakers followed the same procedure. As a result, semantic profiles of the original text and its three Ukrainian translations were drawn up. It has been revealed that V. Koptilov's translation is the closest version (translation) of Shelley's sonnet (original) in terms of respondents' semantic space content.

The qualitative content analysis reveals three principal categories in the original text: power, life, death. The results of the associative experiment held with English and Ukrainian speakers demonstrate that in the English speakers' mentality the concept "power" has positive or emotionally neutral associations, for instance, order, president, money, taxes, manager, and the like. The Ukrainian subjects gave primarily negative responses: pocket, Gongadze, oil, magnate, money, to lie, and the like. The word "life" is evaluated positively by English participants, and less positively by Ukrainians. The stimulus "death" shows a cultural paradox: for Ukrainians it is not so bad, and contrasts with English speakers' responses. In a third of the Ukrainians the attitude is neutral, more than a half of respondents evaluate it negatively, the rest - positively.

The results of the semantic differential support the data obtained in the course of the association test. The figures in boldface show significant semantic distances between concepts, reflected in the mentality of the English and Ukrainian groups (see Table 1).

Table 1: Semantic spaces for the concepts power, life, death









Semantic distance



Semantic distance



Semantic distance









- 1.0






















The quantitative content analysis of the translations demonstrates that Ivan Franko used a lot of words, which fall into the categories of POWER and DEATH. Moreover, he used for Ukrainians phono-semantically unpleasant words with the consonants [r], [s], [h], [ts]: hordyi (arrogant), pohorda (neglect), topche (tramples), raby (slaves), mertva (dead), sukha (dry). These translation equivalents provoke a sad mood on the part of the reader. Negative content in the original is suppressed by more pleasant words like trunkless, lip, cold, lifeless, colossal, boundless and the like. O.Mokrovolskiy's translation is evaluated as better by target recipients because of the less frequent use of words attributed to power. V. Koptilov tries "to hide" negative content behind a more pleasant form: ulamki (wrecks), nezhaslyi (undying), znevazhlyva (scornful), velychna (imposing), kolos (colossus). Next, the association test revealed different responses to the English word king and Ukrainian word tsar. Among Ukrainian speakers the former generates positive associations, whereas the latter is not associated with something positive. I.Franko as well as O.Mokrovolskiy, for in stance, twice use this word: "Tsar vsikh tsariv" (Tsar of all tsars) ; "Tsariv ya tsar" (Of tsars I am tsar), which is justified objectively (in the original "King of Kings"). Instead, V.Koptilov uses it once: "Ya tsar vsioho" (I am tsar of everything).

All these factors had an influence upon aesthetic responses in both groups of addressees.

4.4 Content analysis of prose text

Content analysis was undertaken to reveal and to compare features of the main categories in the original text and in its Ukrainian and Russian versions. Consider the following example taken from J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" (Salinger 1998) :

"Daddy's going to kill you. He's going to kill you," she said.
I wasn't listening, though. I was thinking about something else - something crazy.
"You know what I'd like to be?" I said. "You know what I'd like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?"
"What? Stop swearing."
"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like-"
"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."
She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

There are three main categories in the text: DANGER, HUMAN, TIME&SPACE. The first category is represented by the nouns cliff, edge, catcher. The second one contains nouns body, kids, choice. The third one has the nouns rye, field, day (see Table 2).

Table 2: Content analysis of the original and target texts








Cliff (2), edge (1), catcher (1)

Prirva/ precipice (4), krai/ edge (1)

Propast'/ precipice (3), krai/ edge (1), skala/ cliff (1)



Body (8), kids (2), choice (1), daddy (1)

Liudyna/ man (2), malecha/ kids (1), maliuky/ kids (1), ditlakhy/ children (1), dity/ children (1), tato/ daddy (1), tabunets'/ group (1)

Vzroslyi/ adult (1), golova/ head (1), dusha/ someone (1), malyshy/ kids (1), rebiatishki, rebiata/ fellows (3)



Rye (5), day (1), field (1)

Zhyto/ rye (6), den'/ day (1), pole/ field (1)

Rozh/ rye (4), vecher/ evening (3), pole/ field (1)




Ideya/ idea (1)

Delo/ affair (1), mysl'/ thought (2)

What strikes one here is that in the Ukrainian and Russian texts the category DANGER changes: prirva (precipice), krai (edge); propast (precipice), krai (edge), skala (cliff). It doesn't contain the nouns catcher along with choice seen as the key words in the global context of the novel. The translations transform these nouns into verbs: sterehty, vybyraty (Ukr), sterech, vybrat' (Rus), respectively. Choosing these verbs-equivalents instead of nouns suppresses the right-hemispheric perception of events by Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking readers. Two other categories contain basically all the functional equivalents of the original nouns.

Table 3: Psycho-graphological analysis of the source and target texts







Vocabulary variety (per cent)





Logical cohesion









As is seen from Table 3, the vocabulary variety quotient (VVQ) is substantially lower in the original than in both translations. Although translators attain better formal characteristics of their texts, I treat this deviation from the author's intention as an attempt to disarrange the balance between the form and the content of the text.

The logical cohesion quotient (LCQ) depends upon the number of function words like conjunctions and prepositions used in the text. The LCQ is significantly increased in Ukrainian and Russian texts in contrast to the English original. This non-coincidence means that the former are decoded primarily by the left hemisphere, whereas the former are processed by the right hemisphere.

The embolism quotient (EQ), which shows the portion of words lacking semantic meaning like interjections, vulgarisms, pragmatic markers, unreasonably repeated words, is twice higher in the original than in the translations. The abundance of embolic words shows that the character of the novel is in the state of emotional tension. Basically, this state is closely connected with an altered state of consciousness. Accordingly, the lower rate of embolic words leads to a more rational or logical perception of reality by the reader. On the whole, the deviations mentioned above change the scheme of interpretation, from concrete-imagined to verbal-logical.

5. Conclusions

Translation research with the application of psycholinguistic methods enables the analyst to determine structural and semantic characteristics of the original and target texts, the way they influence the reader. Lev Vygotsky's theory of the aesthetic response, Eugene Nida's theory of dynamic equivalence along with recent neurolinguistic data on laterality, i.e. the difference in the mental functions controlled by the left and right cerebral hemispheres of the brain, contribute greatly not only to text linguistics and hermeneutics, but also to translation theory and practice. A. Paivio's dual code theory laid the foundation to viewing textual information as a heterogenic entity. Basically, the theory gives an answer and stimulates raising a question about the nature of reader's aesthetic pleasure. As S. Freud put it:

Any aesthetic pleasure can be explained as our soul efforts' release from tension (Freud 1925).

Since any tension presupposes two different forces, the two codes, verbal-logical and concrete-imagined are claimed to be opponents in the fictional text. Thus any distortions in the textual form, which is governed by the natural temporal sequence and processes by the rational part of human mentality, inevitably lead to activating a spacious and simultaneous perception belonging to the mythological or cyclic time model. As a result, the recipient's state of consciousness is altered.

Next, when the reader interprets such information chunks, the process demands excessive cognitive efforts on his/her part, which lead to an overload of consciousness. Accordingly, this 'cognitive spending', in terms of D. Sperber and D. Wilson (Sperber, Wilson 1986), reduces the information relevance for the rational part of the mentality. However, according to the principle of equivalence (Harding 2003), the amount of energy, or efforts, spent for the conscious work (in our case, text processing), will be compensated by its equivalent amount in the subconscious. The outflow of mental energy, which is accessible for the left hemisphere conscious domain, is necessary for its activation on another, right hemisphere subconscious pole.

Thus fiction proves to be a powerful means for releasing psychic energy from the subconscious part of the psyche. Information chunks containing mythological elements, being unusual because of other, non-conscious governing principles, and thus turn out to be alien for consciousness, but are at the same time inalienable for the subconscious. By employing a sophisticated form of text construction the author intends to suppress the negative content. The tension between the poles gradually increases, polarizing the hemispheres. This conflict results in discharge and mutual transformation of emotions and release of psychic energy in the form of feelings.

While translating texts of fiction, the interpreter should exercise great care, since any inaccurate choice may result in the target text reader's inability to attain an adequate aesthetic response. The broader the "areas" of overlapping of author and translator's individual mental spaces are, the more successful is the translation.

Among prospective areas of further research are gender peculiarities of aesthetic response in translation.

© Serhiy Zasyekin
(Volyn Institute for Economics and Management, Lutsk, Ukraine)


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Zasyekin, S. (2004). Psychosemantic aspects of translation of literary texts. Book of Abstracts. 7 th Congress of International Society of Applied Psycholinguistics (ISAPL). Cieszyn: University of Silesia., 125 - 126

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