A Few Comments on Translation by Isaac Jacobovsky

Can a piece of text ever be accurately translated? And what are the socio-political implications of this?

September 25, 2015


Translating a literary work is assumed to be an expression of a source text into a target language. It is both an activity and a product. Because of the temporal sequence of the three components, the source text, the translation process, and its product translation is assumed to be a derivative of the source text. However, is this opinion tenable?


First, one should look at the social and target-related aspects of translation. Literary translation, seen as the creative activity of replacing the source text with a new text which, to make it available to the target reader, is completely different from the former. But is this not a paradox? One object is replaced with a totally different one just to have the first one made available to the target audience! What is the nature of this paradox?

Some would say and do that no such paradox exists since translation is simply not feasible. Jargon, dialect or vernacular make the translator’s work very difficult. Original humour or play on words such as palindromes are simply untranslatable. Neologisms, especially stylistic, word formation and imparting new meaning to words, are yet more problem areas for the translator, as are euphony, disharmony or cacophony, poetic tempo or rhymes.

Further obstacles are stylistic and punctuation differences between the original and target languages, specific culture- and customs-related references of the original author, and even ignorance of the context or objective chosen by the author. Also, the author’s intention, was it to create a mood by words where the language of his work is perceived “independently of the mind”, the approach especially applied by James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, or was it rather to conduct a rational dialogue with
existing ideas?


Prose, and particularly poetry are assumed to be the most difficult texts to translate, its form and content in the target language representing the difficulties. Roman Jakobson opined that poetry’s vital and inalienable feature is its untranslatability.

Nevertheless, translation of a literary work is very useful from social and cultural perspectives.

The endless disputes about Torah (Old Testament) translation illustrate this, their objective being to show the beauty or truth of the source text. A lot of Torah translators decided that rendering the truth of the original is more important than showing the beauty of the text. According to Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber it is not just the outcome of the translation activity, i.e. the target text that should be assessed for quality, but the translation’s faithfulness to and potential deviations from the source text.

Is translation possible, then? Renowned authors such as Ludwik Fleck, Benjamin Lee Whorf, or later Paul Karl Feyerabend and Thomas Samuel Kuhn believed that no translation was possible because no such thing as faithful translation can exist between natural languages because it violates the grammatical and semantic rules of the two languages.

Untranslatability between languages results from a close correlation between the meaning of utterances and the theoretical context in which they were used. This correlation dominates to such an extent that in practical terms describing a phenomenon means accepting some rules also. What imposes this strong correlation?


Natural languages have well-developed ontologies, made up of cosmology – the general view of the world, and ideology – the general view of society, both components originating from a daily use of language and expressing beliefs prevailing in the culture. As a consequence, natural languages not only describe but also form events. Thus, an utterance by the user of one language can be perceived as an absurd one by the user of a different language.

The descriptive and prescriptive functions of the language were already indicated by Aristotle when he stated that most arts are mimetic, i.e. imitative. He believed, however, that this imitation is of a special type: poets imitate the world in its entirety, and that poetry, defined in this way, does not deal with objects, but rather with probable events and probable facts.

What are the consequences of this viewpoint? Probable events or facts may both describe and form the world. One should remember that the probability of an event is determined by a set of possibilities, and as far as the world is concerned this set of possibilities is always embedded in ontology.

Similarly, Roman Ingarden perceives works of art as purely intentional objects, fictional entities, a “species”, i.e. a realm of pure possibilities. In the theory of construction of a literary work this fiction becomes one of the constitutive features of literary work, determined by the theory of literary work analysis, a complicated area of study that should precede the translation of any literary work.


It seems, however, that translation is possible in spite of the objections referred to above. One can even say that it is possible to produce translation where beauty and truth are rendered adequately and made comprehensible to the reader, especially with simpler texts. However, translating poetry might prove much more difficult, given its various syntactic and pragmatic problems. Even if successfully coped with the problems, the difficult issues relating to the perception of the literary work, which is its ontology still remain.

Cognitive grammar comes to poetry’s rescue. Its pioneers, like George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, opposing Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar and structuralism, proposed metaphor studies and demonstrated metaphor’s fundamental role in language, perception of the world and practical human activities.

Here again we should refer to Aristotle who believed that metaphor is a transfer of a term for one thing into another, from the genus to the species, from the species to the genus, from the genus to another genus, or a transfer of the term from one thing to another by analogy. This shows that metaphor may help people get closer to understanding one thing by way of understanding a completely different thing! And this is not deemed a paradox at all!

In this way, the old ideas combined with this new perception give us hope that translations will be still produced and, taking account of all the comments made above, will not be regarded as derivative of the source text, but as a distinct work of literature. By adopting this approach the nature of the translators’ problems will change the understanding of untranslatability or incommensurability of languages.

Edinburgh 2015

Isaac Jacobovsky was born in Lodz, Poland. He studied Economics, Philosophy, Pedagogy of the High Education and Law and worked as a lecturer of Formal Logic, Semantics and Philosophy of Science. Isaac is the author of scientific books and papers and was a member of the democratic opposition in Poland 1974-1989. Fled from Poland because of too much repression before and after 1989. Temporary lived in Sweden. Has been living with four children in Edinburgh permanently since 2007. An author of literary books and e-books. Writes poetry, prose and drama in Polish. The author’s website: www.jacobovsky.co.uk


TAGS: academic grammar Isaac Jacobovsky Noam Chomsky poetry Poland Polish Scotland Scottish PEN Translation