Robert Spence


On being teaching translating



Since the decontextualized non-finite clause being teaching translating has chosen to presuppose its Subject, but the reader has not yet had sufficient time or sufficient text to ‘build up’ the context, it is only fair to begin by pointing out that, if the Subject had been explicit, it would have been in the first person singular. As a statement about teaching translating, the remarks that follow are as subjective as they are incomplete; their validity should therefore be understood to be vested solely in the writer — the covert bearer of responsibility for the success of a symbolic exchange of information whose ultimate physical form has been officially limited by the publishers to a maximum length of 63.315 metres.

As approximately 1.8 % of that length has already been used up, I shall assume that the word translating in the title requires little further explanation. It has been chosen in preference to the word translation in order to sidestep one particular fragment of a pattern of lexicosemantic ambiguity which appears to be ‘built in’ to the structure of Standard Average European (cf. Whorf 1956: passim) and which hampers a great deal of modern scientific discourse: the fact, namely, that for a large number of cases in which what is being semanticized is an abstract relation involving two terms, there is a readymade lexicalization which does duty both for the relation and (with a skew systematic enough to suggest the existence of a semantic cryptotype:) for one, but not the other, of the terms (cf. Hjelmslev 1961: 34); the same lexicosemantic ambiguity is also to be observed in a large number of cases in which the semanticized is an abstract process involving more than one inherent participant. Thus we happily use the lexical item “translation” to mean both ‘process’ and ‘product’, and rely solely on the grammatical cryptotype of ‘countability’ to distinguish between the two (she’s studying translation vs. she’s studying a translation). In doing so, we ignore two essential facts, facts which a native speaker of a language that did not possess the covert semantic category of countability would probably find considerably less counterintuitive:

  1. the translation product (a translation), although its physical ‘husk’ may perhaps be describable as a static object, is itself an instance of semiosis, and thus inherently processual: it only exists in the act of being produced (= churned out, like sausage) by a (re-)writer, or in the act of being consumed (= sucked in, like spaghetti) by a (secondary) reader;

  2. the translation process (translation) is not an endless or unbounded continuum, but something that occurs in fits and spurts: we do ‘bits of translating’, just as we pour ‘glasses of beer’; and just as ‘a beer’ can imply either a conventional ‘measure’ or a particular ‘variety’ of the amber fluid resulting from the fermentation process and disappearing down the connoisseur’s gullet, so too can translating be considered in respect of particular quantities or qualities of the semiotic flow that emerges from the ruminations of the producer and gets savoured, or slurped down hastily, or perhaps even spat out in disgust, by the consumer.

When viewed in relation to a clausal rather than a nominal paradigm, a ‘boundedness’ or ‘finiteness’ of the translation process necessarily implies (i.) an assignment of the translating to a Subject (whose semantic presence limits the potential extension of the translation process in an interactively-defined ‘responsibility space’), (ii.) an alignment of the translating with respect to the axis of polarity (as either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’), and (iii.) a ‘tying down’ of the translating relative to the speech situation (a limitation of the potential extension of the translation process either (a.) in speaker-centred time or (b.) in a speaker-centred ‘judgement space’ which spans the gap between the two ends of the polarity axis and is articulated into the (non-Euclideanly) parallel modal dimensions of probability, usuality, obligation, and readiness/ability). It is only when the translating has been circumscribed or ‘confined’ in this way that it becomes possible to use it to expound a move in a discourse.

In the title, however, the translating has not been confined in this way. It does, of course, have polarity (which by default is positive). But it has no Subject, which means that no one is modally (or morally) responsible for it. And since it has selected the feature ‘non-finite’ in the grammatical system of clausal finiteness, it cannot be pinned down directly in relation to the interactive centre of a discussion or a dispute. In fact, it has already been effectively removed from the realm of disputation altogether by the simple fact of being downranked and made to function as the Complement of the teaching, as a kind of ‘thing’ that (doesn’t ‘teach’ but) ‘gets taught’. However, although subjectless, non-finite, and downranked, the translating that has been forced in this way to function as a term in a superordinate discourse is in itself not a ‘thing’, but a ‘doing’; in other words, what has been nominalized was and still is a clause. Thus, translating could have a constellation of Complements and Adjuncts of its own, just as it can and does in the case of the non-downranked finite clause she’s translating them a technical manual from English into German.

By omitting any such pattern of complementation and adjunction (i.e., by not taking a form such as On being teaching her translating them a technical manual from English into German), the title appears to be relying on a number of implicit assumptions about translating, and about the patterns of social answerability that cluster around it:

  1. By omitting an indirect Complement such as them, the title appears to be relying on the implicit assumption that translating is an activity which can be discussed without reference to those for whom the translating is being done (first the translation agency, then the commissioner of the translation, and finally the ultimate receivers, the target audience) — i.e, without reference to the concrete circumstances of space, time and limited budgets under which all these groups are functioning or the respective sets of needs, desires, and expectations that they have in relation to the translating process and/or its product. Those for whom the translating is being done bear no inherent ‘responsibility’ for the success of the translating. Thus, the only way of making them answerable for the success of a proposition ‘about’ that translating is via an analytic structure such as they’re having her translate a technical manual from English into German — there is no way of saying they’re gimbling her a technical manual from English into German, where gimble is a suppletive causative form of translate meaning ‘charge or entrust (someone) with the responsibility of translating (something)’ or ‘delegate the responsibility for translating (something) (to someone)’.

  2. By omitting typical Adjuncts such as from English and into German, the title appears to be relying on the implicit assumption that translating is an activity which can be discussed independently of the identity and nature of the source and target language systems that are involved in the particular translating task at issue — few people indeed regularly produce such clauses as she’s germanizing them a technical manual from the English, and anyone who replied to the question What’s she doing right now? with She’s germanizing! would be sailing dangerously close to the reefs of utter ungrammaticalness. More importantly, it is not the languages themselves that bear the responsibility for the success of the translating. Thus, we cannot say German isn’t translating into from English by her in this technical manual, although that clause might perhaps have averted the reefs of ungrammaticalness in the last split second if it had omitted the translator altogether, or had reinterpreted her as an ‘instrument’ (a kind of ‘means’) — cf. this silver just isn’t polishing / this silver just isn’t polishing with this dried-out old impregnated cleaning cloth. Whereas in principle any direct or indirect Complement is a potential candidate for the Subject role (Dr Johnson’s servant obediently gave the neighbour this handwritten note after the lexicographer’s stroke; the neighbour was obediently given this handwritten note after the lexicographer’s stroke by Dr Johnson’s servant; this handwritten note was obediently given the neighbour by Dr Johnson’s servant after the lexicographer’s stroke), an Adjunct is in principle unable to have the responsibility for the validity of the assertion vested in it in this way; thus, neither the obedience nor the stroke could be used as the Subject of a proposition about the delivery of the note. If the neighbour had refused the lexicographer’s famous written request for help, and had been taken to court for failure to lend assistance, questions might have been put to him such as But you had been informed of the man’s situation, had you not? or But the servant did call on you that morning with a letter, did he not? or But the letter was delivered to you, was it not? Each of these utterances would have implied a different distribution of responsibilities within the ethical system that was being construed by the courtroom discourse, and would therefore have been characterized by its own particular choice of Subject assignment, in accordance with a principle of metaphorical transference that allows the notion of responsibility to be transferred from the portion of the social world that is being discoursally construed (here: ‘successful communication of a request for help’) into the discourse which — in a series of communicative exchanges each capable of succeeding or failing individually — is ‘doing the construing’. If an attempt had been made to assign the responsibility not to one of the ‘participants’ but to one of the ‘circumstances’ of the letter-delivering, the courtroom discourse would have broken down, and a portion of the world of social responsibilities whose construal was what was at issue would have thereby become temporarily incomprehensible. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Via nominalization (a kind of ‘grammatical metaphor’, or ‘context-neutral rhetorical device’) it would have been possible to make the stroke the Subject (The lexicographer’s stroke was followed by the delivery of the note. — No it wasn’t! — Yes it was!). And in cases where an Adjunct is expounded by a prepositional phrase, it is actually not even necessary to resort to nominalization; the Complement of the preposition can often be transferred directly from its own rank up to the rank of the clause and made to function as Subject. Thus we can say This bed was once slept in by Dr Johnson, and perhaps even (in the case of the nocturnal cerebrovascular accident that deprived the lexicographer of the power of speech, but left him with a sufficient amount of adequately perfused cerebral cortical tissue to enable him to self-diagnose the extent of his aphasia by mentally composing and translating poetry and then criticizing the translation): This bedroom was once translated in by Dr Johnson. In this case, the room itself becomes the bearer of responsibility, by being ‘invested’, in two separate but metaphorically related senses. First, in addition to being the textual locus chosen as the point of departure for the transmission of a message (which is thereby automatically designated as being a message ‘about’ that room), the room is the interpersonal locus at which the credit for the communicative success of the proposition about what happened there can be expected to ‘reaccrue’ in the course of the ensuing dialogue, by being maintained in the Subject role throughout a series of propositions and having other things predicated of it (This bedroom was once translated in by Dr Johnson. — Was it really? It must have a very special significance for the history of translation, then, mustn’t it! — Yes, and it is said to have been designed by a descendant of Sir Christopher Wren, so it may also turn out to be important for the history of architecture and interior design as well, in a rather modest kind of way. — It’s got a very pleasant ambience, hasn’t it. It makes you feel almost as though you’re in the great man’s presence... How much did it cost to restore?). Second, the room is an experiential locus that undergoes a series of mystical investitures, whereby it is charged and recharged with a kind of metaphysical ‘virtue’. Throughout this process, the room itself remains a mere token; but it is a token which is the bearer of a symbolic value, and that value increases as the discourse proceeds — just as the value of silverware increases if it can be polished up and given ‘a lovely gleam’, or the value of an oriental lamp or a brick dwelling increases if the potential buyer can be persuaded to believe that it is inhabited by a genie or was inhabited by a genius. But it is time now to try to squeeze back into the confined region of discursive space that Dr Johnson’s factotum was so strangely come up out of by. Note that in the case of target and source languages as Adjuncts in a clause about translating, only one of the languages can be made Subject: we can say German translates into rather well from English, or English translates out of rather well into German, but not English/German translates rather well from/into. And it is hard to incorporate in such a clause a reference to the type of text that is being translated, unless this is done by interpreting the text-type as Theme and then applying a kind of grammatical metaphor to turn it into a circumstantial Adjunct of ‘matter’: as for technical manuals, German translates into rather well from English.

  3. By omitting a direct Complement such as a technical manual, the title appears to be relying on the implicit assumption that translating is an activity which can be discussed independently of the type of text being translated — rather predictably, we have no way (as yet) of producing a lexicogrammaticalization such as she’s retechnicalmanualizing for them from English into German. More importantly, if the technical manual is made Subject, then the speaker/writer cannot make plain old unadorned ‘her’ the non-contrastive focus of what the addressee is being invited to attend to. While it is possible to say [Do you know Miss Molesworth-Fortescue? Well,] this technical manual was translated by her from English into German, the young lady in question, once her identity is known, is unlikely to be able to occupy a culminative position; she will typically be either ignored altogether (the manual has already been translated from English into German, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and plans are already underway to translate it into Japanese, Russian, Finnish and...), or showered with laurels to the point where she becomes ‘important’ or ‘heavy’ enough to be culminative (this technical manual was translated from English into German by that brilliant young woman that Wolfram Wilss trained at Saarbrücken before he retired), or subjected to the humiliation of contrastive stress (it can’t possibly have been translated by HER, can it?). Note that all these examples were passive. The technical manual can only be made a modally responsible ‘undergoer’ of the translating process, not a modally responsible ‘doer’ — i.e., we cannot say the technical manual translated itself through her from English into German.

    An additional question we might like to consider in this connection is:

  4. By making the languages circumstantial Adjuncts of the translating, not Classifiers modifying the texts that are the input and output of the process, are we not relying on the implicit assumption that text types can be discussed ‘independently’ of the source and target languages, and of the cultures those languages respectively help realize? Should we not perhaps rather say she’s translating them an English technical manual into a German one (— leaving open the question of whether the word functioning as Classifier at nominal group rank refers to the language or to the culture or to some strange blend of the two —) and be trying to get used to saying she’s germantechnicalmanualizing for them from English? The globalization of production and distribution, which has created many new text types and changed existing ones almost beyond recognition, has not yet by any means led to a complete cross-cultural standardization of the genre conventions of even the most ‘technical’ of texts, and of course it is always possible that in the process of being put across a cultural border a text will undergo a reweighting or differential re-foregrounding in respect of the various functional dimensions which characterize it (by being reinterpreted as a fine piece of literature although it was originally a work of science, or by being used as a ‘text’ in a foreign language class although it was originally a fine piece of literature!).

It may therefore prove useful at this point to change the dominant functional dimension of the analysis of the mini-text On being teaching translating, by ceasing to view it primarily in relation to the ‘interactive’ function, the function language has of enacting patterns of social exchange (ongoing discursive re-negotiations of social roles and responsibilities and of their communicative tokens), and foregrounding instead the ‘reflective’ function, the function language has of construing social experience via the construction, maintenance, and reconstruction of lexico- and grammaticosemantic taxonomies of things, processes, qualities and the like (as metaphorical mappings of the social structure onto the construal of experience by the linguistic semiotic). Of these two types of taxonomies, it is the lexicosemantic that are the easier to describe, as they are the more directly accessible to consciousness; their semantic ‘fine structure’ can change in the space of mere decades, leading to slight but perceptible communication difficulties between grandparents and grandchildren and thus to a folk awareness of the change. Grammaticosemantic taxonomies, however, change more slowly, and the fact that they are realized not in relations among items, but in relations among relations among items, makes them less accessible (and thus less vulnerable) to conscious reflection.

The lexicosemantic part of the ideological construal of experience is what makes the major contribution to the specification of lexical items, and can thus be seen as the core component of the paradigmatics of lexis. The grammaticosemantic part of the ideological construal of experience is to be found in the systems of process-type, participation and circumstantiation at clause rank (collectively known as ‘transitivity’ for want of a better word) and in the systems that organize the structure of groups in terms of classes and subclasses, types of quantification and qualification, and the like.

Transitivity is sensitive to the ‘field’ of discourse, to ‘what is going on in the culturally-defined situation in which language is being used to produce text’. The transitivity patterns of a language are the grammatical reflex of the generalized sets of activities that are defined by the institutions of a particular culture. It is precisely these activities in which our fellow human agents are typically engaged in the institutional settings in which we encounter them. By studying the patterns of transitivity we can survey the generalized structures of the activities and make out the topography of the institutions that generate the settings.

Such a project, however, is subject both to an important proviso and to the effects of an importing projection. The important proviso is that the language and the culture must have coexisted for a period of time of the order required for grammaticosemantic change, and not have been recently compelled to cohabit. This is because grammaticosemantic construals of experience have to be realized in patterns of pure linguistic form, and these patterns are remarkably resistant to change — although they can eventually be recontextualized (and thus resemanticized) once the violent grafting of a new language onto an established culture (or of a new culture onto an established language) has been healed by a sufficient stretch of discourse. The effects of the ‘importing projection’ are due to the functioning of a special cultural institution, one which ‘projects’ or ‘recontextualizes’ the discourses of other cultural institutions for the purpose of transmitting them from one generation to the next; in the process, the discourses have to be ‘imported’ into a new institutional setting and ‘subsumed’, by being pruned back to their essentials to become ‘items on a syllabus’, ‘subject matter’ that is ‘treated’ or ‘dealt with’ within the temporal and spatial partitionings effected by timetable and classroom. Thus, she’s translating them a technical manual from English into German becomes he’s teaching translating this semester (Wednesdays at 3:15 p.m. in Room 216, Fridays at 1:15 p.m. in Room 213, ...); the ‘paedagogic device’, as it has been called (cf. Bernstein 1994), can even be applied a second time, to generate the situation where, for example, he’s studying being teaching translating (so as to be able to write a paper for his colleagues called “On being teaching translating”).

From the vantage point afforded by the transitivity component of English grammar, we can make the following observations about what remains of the institution of translating after the institution of teaching has recontextualized it in this way (by downranking it to the status of a ‘thing’, stripping it back to its processual core, and ‘disciplining’ it):

  1. The title has not become ungrammatical even though it has omitted the downranked clause’s Beneficiary them (an indirect participant in the translating process). This allows us to predict that our survey of the activity structures that constitute the institutionalized teaching of translating will not necessarily uncover any traces of the presence of those for whom translators translate. The structural optionality of the Beneficiary also allows us to make out part of the topography of translation as an academic discipline: it appears to be one which does not fall within the organizational or financial sphere of responsibility of those who will reap the organizational and financial rewards of the future graduates’ professional skills. In this respect translation ought logically to be viewed by the state — which has to take on the responsibility for most of the financing, and for part of the organizing — as being on a par with other state-funded tertiary-level academic disciplines that deliver professional skills to future independent entrepreneurs, such as surgery, for example, or engineering. This, however, the state (or its agents, in those areas of university administration which are officially organizationally ‘autonomous’ and thus not under the state’s ‘direct’ control) does not do. There is a marked reluctance on the part of the state and its agents to provide adequate funding for the training of translators and interpreters. The reason for this differential treatment is not immediately obvious; after all, it could be argued without the slightest hint of sarcasm that the skills of interpreters and translators are no less valuable to modern society than are those of surgeons and engineers. It is only when one recalls that most surgeons and engineers are men, whereas most graduates of translating and interpreting are women, that the real reason becomes clear. In a patriarchal society, the systematic undervaluing of ‘women’s work’ is a highly effective strategy for the maintenance of male power, and a central component of the institutionalized oppression of women as social beings.

  2. The title has not become ungrammatical even though it has omitted the downranked clause’s Locations from English and into German (circumstances ‘attendant’ upon the translating process and defining the two endpoints of a trajectory — compare the concrete spatial trajectory she’s pouring them some beer from a jug into a glass with the metaphorically produced abstract spatial trajectory she’s translating them a technical manual from English into German). This suggests that at least some of the activities that constitute teaching translating (such as lectures and seminars on translatology) will not be tied to any particular language pair, but will concern general strategies for translating from any language to any other, with particular languages only being brought into the picture for the purpose of providing concrete examples. The structural optionality of the languages as abstract spatial Locations also allows us to make out another aspect of the topography of translation as an academic discipline: it appears to be a discipline organizationally independent of the philologies, but one that relies implicitly on a general theory of languages and thus needs to maintain close organizational and intellectual ties to general and applied linguistics, with which it exchanges theories, hypotheses, experimental methodology and empirical results.

  3. The title has not become ungrammatical even though it has omitted the downranked clause’s Goal a technical manual (a direct participant in the translating process). This suggests that at least some of the activities that constitute teaching translating will not be tied to any specific kind of texts, but will concern general strategies for translating any kind of text whatsoever, with specific kinds of texts only being brought in to provide examples and opportunities for practice. The structural optionality of any specific kind of text as Goal also allows us to make out yet another feature of the topography of translation as an academic discipline: it is a discipline which attempts to at least partly subsume the full diversity of the cultural discourses that produce the various ‘kinds of texts’, without however attempting to fully subsume any of these discourses in particular; indeed, to do so would be to fragment, and to become merely part of the ‘meta’ discourses of various other academic disciplines (such as law, economics, engineering, or literature, for example). Translation, then, is an academic discipline required to concern itself with the specialist discourses transmitted by various other academic disciplines, but is organizationally independent of those disciplines; it is a discipline relying heavily on a general theory of texts, and thus needing to maintain close organizational and intellectual ties with a ‘science of texts’ — i.e., with a ‘text linguistics’, in the broadest sense; and at the same time it is a discipline that has the option of internally subdividing itself and offering alternative areas of specialization or even completely parallel alternative courses of study concentrating on the translation of specific ‘kinds’ of texts (legal, economic, technical, literary, etc.).

  4. In the course of discussing the nature of the translating process (via a functional grammatical analysis of the clause she’s translating them a technical manual from English into German), an attempt was made to problematize the notions ‘language’, ‘culture’, and ‘text’, by suggesting that a more accurate representation of a typical translating process might be she’s translating them an English technical manual into a German one. The question was whether the languages should be circumstances at clause rank — with the text as a participant that is neither created nor intensionally altered by the translating but simply ‘relocated’, like a liquid being poured from one container to another — or whether the languages (and/or their associated cultures) should classify the text at nominal group rank — with the need for separate ‘before’ and ‘after’ classifications at that rank arising from the fact that some of the intensional properties of the text do seem to be changed by the translating. This question suggests that at least some of the activities involved in teaching translating will be concerned with attempting to sensitize students to the complexity of the relationships connecting language, culture, and text. This may well involve a considerable amount of interaction with sciences such as metalinguistics, cultural anthropology, comparative literature, history, geography, sociology, etc.; some of the results of this interaction may be observable in lectures and seminars on linguistics and translation theory, others in lectures and seminars on ‘cultural studies’. The uncertainty about the rank at which the language and/or its associated culture should be structurally incorporated (in cases where the process is one of carrying a text across a linguistic and cultural border) allows us to make out a region of tension and uncertainty in the topography of academia: Translation and Interpreting, as an established but underfunded academic discipline, is currently being challenged to define the terms of its coexistence with an emerging ‘interdiscipline’ known as ‘Intercultural Communication’. If there really is any essential difference between the disciplines transmitting the discourses of ‘translating or interpreting from one language to another’ and ‘communicating interculturally’, then it may turn out to have something to do with the degree of importance assigned to the role of language in enabling the transmitted, and to the role of linguistics in enabling the transmitting.

So much for translating — as a social activity, and as a social activity important enough to have been paedagogized at tertiary level.

What kind of an activity is teaching (as in teaching translating)? Is it a kind of ‘doing’? In that case, what role does translating play? Is it Range (a circumstance of ‘extent’ that has been reinterpreted as a participant), like Mount Everest in climbing Mount Everest? Might it simply be Goal, perhaps of a creative material process, like a house in building a house, or of a dispositive one, like a picture in rehanging a picture? Could it perhaps be something which was originally a kind of ‘matter’, but which has somehow strayed from its orbit as a peripheral circumstance and found its way into the inner ring of participants? In that case it must be a special kind of Range (Range: matter), but if that is true, then the teaching might be some kind of verbal process... Maybe teaching is a kind of causative process — but is it then a kind of ‘enabling’ (causing someone to be able to do something) or a kind of ‘causative mental’ process (causing someone to know something)? (Cf. Halliday 1975).

The multiply ambiguous grammar of teaching is a reflection of an ongoing series of ideological disturbances and institutional readjustments that are related to the transition from the industrial society to the information society. As a cultural institution for the transmission of ideology, grammar is acutely sensitive to such superstructural disturbances and readjustments. The covert semantic categories that form the basis of the paradigmatic architecture of grammar are like the tectonic plates of modern geology — slabs of crust floating on the spherical surface of a cauldron of seething magma. Along the edges of the slabs, slippages occur. Thus the cryptotype of ‘behavioural’ processes (an unstable, geologically “messy” little slab situated right on the fault line between ‘material’ and ‘mental’ processes in English, and thus subject to the full impact of the enormous tectonic forces generated as these two massive slabs collide, protrude over and under one another, and grind away at each other’s edges) appears to be slipping in the direction of the ‘material’. Whereas it still has one inherently conscious participant, like the tectonic plate of ‘mental’ processes, the unmarked form of its present tense has changed in the course of the past hundred years or so from the simple present (e.g., why do you laugh? — cf. what do you feel?, the unmarked form for mental processes) to the present-in-present (e.g., why are you laughing? — cf. what are you doing?, the unmarked form for material processes). This is a reflection of the ‘objectivization’ of human behaviour associated with the industrial revolution, with its increasing need to ‘mechanize’ human labour — a labour which, ironically, was already becoming increasingly ‘mental’ in character due to the ever-increasing power and complexity of the machines that actually ‘did the deeds’ (while still of course, back in those days, needing to be supervised by their human cerebral appendages...). Now that human beings are essentially no longer engaged in the production of goods at all, but only in the production of the information the machines need to be fed with so that they can supervise themselves, it is the cryptotype of ‘verbal’ or ‘external symbolic’ processes that is being torn asunder and tectonically rebuilt. As a semantic category, ‘verbal’ processes are situated on the fault line between ‘mental’ (including ‘internal symbolic’) and ‘relational’ processes (a category which is itself subjected to stresses of unimaginable magnitude, being as it is the repository of all the types of attribution and symbolic value and identity that capitalism has been able to create in the course of its long struggle to develop an ideologically ‘advantageous’ collective unconscious representation of the relation between use value and exchange value). Thus, the cryptotype of verbal processes is currently displaying an unusually high degree of seismic activity, as it gets squished and stretched and sheered between the adjacent grammaticosemantic slabs of minds processing (or being caused to process) phenomena, and things and ideas being classified in systems of attribution and minted into tokens that embody values. It is precisely in this seismically unstable region of semiotic potential, at the interface between minds and abstract relations, that teaching takes place.

But what has become of the students, in this Orwellian world of the institutionalized reproduction of knowledge, values, and skills (= ‘beings-able-to’)? Although the students are an essential participant in the process, they appear to have been left out of the title altogether! If we reformulated the title as On being teaching students translating, it is to be hoped that the students would then be some kind of Beneficiary. But would they be Beneficiaries of the Recipient type (the new winesacks into which the teacher attempts to pour his old knowledge), or would they be Beneficiaries of the Client type (not people to whom one gives something, but people for whom one does something)? A rather unpleasant possibility is that they may be a kind of Goal, in that something is ‘done to’, not ‘done for’ them. The possibility of their being a Goal, however, loses at least some of its unpleasantness if they are interpreted as the Goal of a creative material process (social beings who get ‘formed’ at a higher level than the level they had existed at after completing the preceding stage of the socialization process). But such an interpretation of education is one that is unlikely to work in practice if the teacher is unable to view the process of formation from the perspective of the beings that are being formed. At the linguistic level, this would require a semantic turnaround, a realignment of our ‘angle’ on the process, from the ‘teacher’ perspective to the ‘student’ perspective which is its converse.

Why not therefore change the title to On learning translating, with both teacher and students left implicit? Or perhaps it would be better to write On students learning translating, this time with the students, but not the teacher, explicitly present. Whether we parse learning in the latter case as gerund or as participle might perhaps say something about our unconscious philosophy of education:

  1. If learning is parsed as a gerund, then the Complement of the preposition on is the downranked, aspectually imperfective (or ‘realis’) non-finite clause students learning translating, and the central concern is with the learning process as a whole, in which students and translating are both more-or-less equally important participants. This analysis would correspond to a functionalist, process-oriented philosophy of education, in which the students only entered the picture at all by virtue of their being learning something or by virtue of the fact that something was getting itself learnt by them.

  2. If learning is parsed as a participle, then the Complement of the preposition on is the nominal group students learning translating, with students as the Head of the nominal group and the downranked imperfective non-finite clause learning translating as a Postmodifier functioning to narrow down the potential reference of the nominal group via the construction of an ad hoc subclass of the class named by the head noun, in the absence of a readymade lexicalization for the purpose. This interpretation would correspond to a humanist conception of education, in which it is the students, rather than the learning process in which they are involved, that constitutes the logical core of what we are reflecting on.

The attentive reader will have noticed that I have dropped the secondary present form, in the course of switching from On being teaching translating to On students learning translating. The reasons for this are complex. In the grammaticosemantics of the modern English tense system, time is construed ‘serially’, with relative location in time being treated as an iterative logical relation. At each step in the iteration, the portion of time arrived at by the logically prior step is used as ‘reference time’ ( t ref ) for a renewed application of the three-term system ‘earlier than t ref’ / ‘later than t ref’ / ‘including t ref’. The portion of time used as reference time for the logically ‘first’ step, in which the ‘primary’ tense is chosen, is in the case of finite clauses the speaking time, and the primary tense choice can have up to four secondary tense choices serially modifying it. Non-finite clauses make no choice of primary tense (choosing instead a term from the system of grammatical aspect), but can still make up to four serial choices of secondary tense. The basic meaning of the categories of the system of tense (and of their modification of each other) interacts with the covert semantic categories of the system of process types to produce a rich device for construing the psychological experience of time, and for articulating that experience with respect to the psychological experience of other categories which are phenomenologically closely related to time, such as appearance/reality, inception, completion, intention, the (temporal correlates of the) categories of countability (‘durativity’/‘punctuality’) and number (‘singularity’/‘iterativity’), etc.; many of the latter categories can also be construed, given appropriate syntactic conditions, by the system of grammatical aspect. An additional dimension of complexity is opened up by the fact that the system of secondary tenses applicable to non-finite clauses can be semantically mapped onto the full finite system of primary and secondary tenses in more than one way, depending on the syntactic environment of the non-finiteness.

The danger with being learning in On students being learning translating may simply be that in cases where the gerund has a Subject, the interpretation as gerund (i.e., as (non-finite) students(’) being learning translating; mappable onto (finite) students are learning translating) is somehow blocked out by the interpretation as participle, resulting in the obligatoriness of a mapping operation that relates (non-finite) students being learning translating not to (finite) students who are learning translating but to (finite) students who are being learning translating; the only possible interpretation of are being learning, however, is ‘are pretending to be learning’ (cf. What are you playing at? — We’re being students!). If this mapping were found to be slightly ‘less’ obligatory in the case of being teaching (as in On linguists being teaching translating), then this might suggest that teaching is semantically slightly closer to being a ‘material’ process, whereas learning is semantically slightly closer to being a ‘mental’ or ‘causative relational’ one.

There is a further possible interpretation of the title. Instead of being a prepositional phrase, On being teaching translating might be a dependent clause in a clause complex, in which case the syntactic environment of the non-finiteness, and thus the mapping from the non-finite into the finite tense system, would be different again. The clause might be glossable as ‘Once I (realized I) was (actually right in the middle of the process of) teaching translation,’ — and it might be about to lead in to a main clause such as I hastily began jotting down some notes about what appeared to be going on. The notes are as follows:

  1. In a typical translation class, the object of the discourse is the wording of a piece of written text. This leads to an inherent difficulty concerning the ‘mode’ of the classroom discourse: the mode of the original discourse (‘written to be read silently’) is changed by the classroom situation into ‘written to be read silently, but nevertheless read aloud, with the rapidly fading aural image being required to constitute the topic of a spontaneous oral/aural dialogic metadiscourse’. In the case of translation into the foreign language, a great deal of class time is typically wasted due to this unusual configuration of the mode variables. The situation could be improved if every piece of text to be discussed were produced by the students using a word-processing system and then presented to the class as a whole in visual form, preferably on-screen. In order to ensure that the new genre created by such a reconfiguration of the mode of the classroom discourse did not automatically entail a reconfiguration of the ‘tenor’ (with all power being concentrated in the hands of the teacher/technician), the students themselves would need to be able to control and manipulate the text while it was being displayed. After being used in class, every version (raw, improved by students, corrected by the teacher) ought logically to be included in a ‘corpus of student translations from the native language X into the foreign language Y’ and made available to linguists and translation scholars for research purposes.

  2. In a typical translation class, it is difficult to teach systematically, because the students lack the necessary grounding in theory. The problem becomes crucial where translation into the foreign language (and in particular into the second foreign language) is concerned, i.e., where most of the students’ “translation” mistakes are due to an inadequate command of the target language and most of the impossibility of teaching systematically is thus related to the absence of linguistic rather than translatological theory. At the beginning of their training, students attend lectures on linguistics and translatology, which they claim not to understand (although most of them later manage to learn their lecture notes off by heart and reproduce them to the examiners’ satisfaction). They also attend courses on the ‘grammar’ of the foreign languages they are studying, which often have little or no connection to the lectures on linguistics and translatology, and which (at least in the case of English) typically contain much that is inaccurate or untrue. Once they have passed the test in ‘grammar’ (and erased from their memory banks both the truths and the untruths), they expect to be able to get on with the business of ‘being taught how to translate’. When translating into the foreign language, they continue to make the same target-language mistakes over and over again, and ‘teaching’ them to translate is thus reduced to a labour of Sisyphus. Although the teacher often understands the aetiology of the ‘wrong translations’, it is invariably difficult, within the scope of, say, an eighth-semester class on translating into the second foreign language, to a) find out what the students’ first foreign language is and therefore which professor’s lectures on linguistics and translatology they attended in first and second semester, b) deduce, elicit and recontextualize what that professor presumably told them, c) elicit, correct and recontextualize what they were once taught about the grammar of their second foreign language but have since forgotten, and d) apply the results to the case in hand. The only practicable options the teacher has are to deal with each individual problem in isolation (without trying to relate it to a system) and to formulate any ‘explanation’ of “why it’s wrong” (— students do sometimes demand to be told this —) in a kind of linguistic baby-talk.

What is urgently needed to remedy this situation is a functional theory of language capable of integrating the lectures on linguistics and translatology, the grammar classes, and the classes in practical translation into a coherent whole.

The students are likely to resist such a proposal. (“What, MORE theory?!”) Such an attitude would be understandable, and were it not for the fact that the enemies of translation as an academic discipline are constantly waiting to pounce (“It has no business being taught at a university!”, “It’s not scientific!”, etc., etc., etc.), one might even be prepared to admit that the students were partly in the right. After all, their attitude to theory is essentially no different from that of a busy teacher who, having bought a personal computer, simply wants to be taught which window to open and which field to click onto in order to perform a particular task, but who does not wish to be taught anything at all about computer programming. As teachers, we shall in future have to get used to having increasingly severe constraints imposed on our syllabuses by the sheer exponentiality of the knowledge explosion. Many of the sciences which have up to now been considered essential components of a university-level professional training in an ‘applied’ field like translation will in future be routinely left out, as the traditional notion of independent academic disciplines comes to be replaced by the new intellectual paradigm of interdisciplinarity. (As an ‘applied’ discipline, translation is already fairly ‘advanced’ in this regard — if asked to say ‘which’ discipline it is the application of, we should have to point to a great many.) But there is a danger lurking here.

It is the danger that ‘mental’ discipline (i.e., that which the various ‘academic’ disciplines have traditionally tried to inculcate in their students) will be sacrificed on the altar of expediency, leaving whole generations of university-educated professionals intellectually defenceless against the increasingly insidious forms that are likely to be taken by mystificationist discourses about the world (and in particular about the relations among language, society, cognition, and “reality”) in the post-industrial, media-dominated consumer society that is already looming ominously on the horizon. Translation students’ frustrated demand to be taught ‘facts’, rather than ‘a whole lot of waffly theory’, is a telling sign of their vulnerability to such mystificationist discourses; and anyone trained in a discipline such as philosophy, or mathematics, or theology, or the law, or any one of the natural or human or social sciences chosen at random, would immediately counter such a demand with the question “What are ‘facts’?”, and would hammer away until the naïve notion of ‘theoryless factuality’ had been knocked out of the heads of the students once and for all. The author of a major modern theory of language has put it this way: “Could not the grammar be written theory-free, letting the facts speak for themselves? — No; ‘facts’ are created by theories; there can be no such thing as a theory-free description of grammar.” (Halliday 21994: xii). Or of anything else, for that matter. Goethe’s formulation is more succinct by several centimetres, and is thus an appropriate envoi for an essay that is already 20% too long:

“Das Höchste wäre zu begreifen, daß alles Faktische schon Theorie ist.”



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