Friday 13 January 2023





In the early 1960s, when linguistics was a budding discipline at universities, Noam Chomsky’s theories of syntactic structures and transformational generative grammar were all the rage. Since I was studying foreign languages, I was encouraged to look at these theories. Out of simple sentences like The man hit the ball and The ball was hit by the man, up-ended, ramified tree-like structures that used algebraic symbols were used to explain what was taking place. Disciples spoke enthusiastically of a revolution and learnt this strange language by heart. I regarded most of this incomprehensible approach as gobbledygook, wondering whether it perhaps was possible to explain complex aspects of grammar in simpler terms. What I failed to understand then, having being brought up on grammar that dealt almost exclusively with morphological rules and word classes, was that it was the combination of words in a sentence according to pre-set rules that enabled a language to make sense. Much later on, I unearthed gold nuggets.

Chomsky spoke of surface structure, the way the language of a sentence is constructed following particular rules. By analysing the nature of these rules, Chomsky sought to arrive at a deep structure that would be universal to all languages. A sort of holy grail. From this deep structure each language could be re-assembled into surface structure applying the appropriate system of transformation.

This is what I call a potential nugget for translators of poetry. If you can dismember the syntactic structure of the poem in the original language and arrive at a deeper level of flux – a process I think of, in terms of a gear change, as ’putting one’s mind into neutral, and, working at this deeper level, it is then possible to re-assemble the limbs – to re-member them – and arrive at a living, vibrant surface structure in the target language – in a different gear. I would, however, argue that this process does not simply have to do with syntax and morphology; it also has to do with sounds, rhythmic and prosodic patterns, patterns of associations, differences of culture, etc. – the way everything combines to make a new whole, a new poem.


What happens, though, if you are translating from, say, French into English, as opposed to, say; Chinese into English? Is there not a difference in kind involved? 

Here another piece of apparent gobbledygook may come in useful: The Sapir-Worf Hypothesis. This suggests that the structure of a language affects or even determines how one sees/is capable of seeing the world. In other words, a cognitive world-view depends on one’s native language. The disciples believe in the strong variant, that it determines one’s world-view. Those of lesser faith that it affects one’s world-view. My image here is that of a jigsaw-puzzle. French to English share the same picture, but the pieces have been jigsawed differently. Chinese to English have different pictures, and the pieces have been jigsawed differently. The law of proximity of languages, if you like. Here, culture and literary tradition clearly play important roles. In poetry translation: Vive la différence! Vive la ressemblance!!

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