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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Theory  »  Truth and Consequences

Truth and Consequences

By Robert K Walker | Published  05/12/2009 | Translation Theory | Recommendation:
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Robert K Walker
מאנגלית לפורטוגזית translator

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Truth and Consequences

Robert K. Walker, Ed.D.

Truth or Consequences was an American quiz show, originally presented on NBC radio (1940-57) and later on television (1950-88). Back in the days when the show was popular, everybody (everybody who watched that kind of program, that is) took it for granted that there was such a thing as THE TRUTH, and that if you didn’t tell the truth, there would be consequences. Life must have been easier for translators in those days – unless you got caught not accurately conveying THE TRUTH from one language into another!

In his book on postmodern politics, Walter Truett Anderson (1990) identifies four different worldviews: 1. the postmodern-ironist, which sees truth as socially constructed; 2. the scientific-rational, in which truth is found through methodical, disciplined inquiry; 3. the social-traditional; and 4. the neo-romantic, in which truth is found through attaining harmony with nature or spiritual exploration of the inner self.

The scientific-rational worldview is grounded in two criteria: the senses and reason. For statements relating primarily to sensory experience, the reference is relatively clear and concrete; here, labeling is the translator’s main task. Where reason predominates, the reference is rather less concrete, but clarity still essential, and conceptual clarification is often required. In social-traditional texts, worldview varies widely among cultures and historical periods, presenting special challenges to the translator and calling for broader perspectives and different methods and philosophies (see Gao Tianxin, 2009, on translation of the I Ching).

The neo-romantic worldview, grounded in a criterion of intuition, often largely cuts its links to any objective reference at all, bringing translation, as Reeves (1999) has shown, to “the limits of language.” For Reeves, the most extreme example of “modernist literature” is Joyce’s (1939) Finnegans Wake, which, having renounced the possibility of expressing objective reality, attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. In a reading note to his courageous translation into Brazilian Portuguese, Donaldo Schüler writes, “A palavra (Word) não é suficientemente forte para organizar o confuso mundo finniciano (world). No logocosmo, luz e trevas se interpenetram indissoluvelmente. O discurso, que se quer esclarecedor, obscurece.” (The Word isn’t strong enough to organize the confused Finnean world. In the logocosmos, light and darkness interpenetrate indissolubly. The discourse, which was supposed to clarify, obscures). See Silva, L. (no date).

The postmodernist-ironist worldview holds that all truth is socially constructed – a view already expressed by Marx at the very beginning of the modernist period. Although Marx was the founder of dialectical materialism, his doctrines find an affinity with the more spiritualistic (or naturalistic) worldview of the neo-romantics, in that both have led many to the conclusion that there is no such thing as objective reality. This neomarxist-postmodernist distrust of metanarratives finds expression in certain practicing translators’ mistrust of academic translation theory. See for example Pereira, I. and Schäffer, A. (no date), who criticize the “logocentric norms” (search for the definitive meaning) which, they allege, are implicit in translation theory. Nevertheless, for them the answer cannot be, as many practicing translators are said to argue, an absence or unawareness of theory. In Shäffer’s (1996) interpretation of Marx, there is in all practice an “introjected theory” which is behind every decision that the translator takes, and is even present in the “labor policies that professionally humiliate the translator, and in the way the culture treats the translator and translation itself.”

Before translating, within the source language (and subsequently, for verification, within the target language), the translator may have recourse to monolingual dictionaries to attempt to discover the definition of an expression. In an ordinary “semasiological” monolingual dictionary, we look up the word to find its meaning or meanings. Alternatively, and particularly in the target language, we may consult an “onamasiological” dictionary (a thesaurus) to find different words to express a given concept. Monolingual dictionaries customarily refer to the referential function of an expression. When the term refers to a sensory phenomenon, we will probably look for its denotation, finding, for example, that the definition of “blue” corresponds quite precisely to that of “azul” in Portuguese or Spanish. On the other hand, when the usage is abstract, we are more likely to find differences in connotation. Webster’s tells us that “blue” means “despondent, melancholy”; while Aurélio’s notes that in Brazil “tudo azul” means quite the opposite: “tudo excelente, no melhor dos mundos” (everything excellent, in the best of all possible worlds). Germans find it strange to hear German-Brazilians say “alles blau”!

In ordinary translation (transmission), we are likely to look for the informative or vocative function of the expression, with reference to the object, in the target language. Where formal equivalence exists (as in the example of denotation above), we have the relatively easy task of finding the simple translation for invariant concepts or “closed monomials.” This is the preferred province of the fields of terminology and automatic translating systems. Where little or no formal equivalence exists, however, we must look for communicative equivalence.

Absence of formal equivalence is found in false cognates and, more generally, where there exists an “incommensurability” between the concepts and expressions in the two languages. May I translate “lap” into Portuguese as “colo”? It depends. When I stand up, I no longer have a lap, but I still have a colo; when I am standing, I would say “the baby is in my arms,” not “in my lap,” but “o bebê está no meu colo.” I say “good night” when I, or the other person, is retiring; otherwise, I say “good evening.” In both cases, however, I say “boa noite.” The best known example is “to know” versus “saber/conhecer”; another is the presumed difficulty in translating “saudade” (ennui?).

In foreign language learning, paired-associate learning (azul = blue) must give way to a concept learning approach when there is no formal equivalence. Klausmeier (1974) suggests four levels of concept learning: (1) concrete - recall of critical attributes, (2) identity - recall of examples, (3) classification - generalizing to new examples, and (4) formalization - discriminating new instances.

In contrast to ordinary translation, “the art of translating” relies more on the translator’s intuition than on the rules of linguistics and educational psychology. Here the expressive function is paramount and the referential function only implicit or, in the solipsism characteristic of extreme postmodernism, often practically nonexistent. Here we are looking for connotations and, perhaps, hermeneutics – which is the study of interpretation theory (see Fritz Paepcke, who was the first to apply a hermeneutic approach to modern translation theory). As we have seen, translating postmodernist novels and ancient oriental texts must perforce rely heavily on such intuitive understanding or, as German sociologist Max Weber would have it, “Verstehen.”
What are the consequences of our beliefs about truth, and those of the people we translate? The question of truth itself involves two distinct fields of philosophy: ontology and epistemology. Spencer (2000) argues that
The muddling of issues of ontology (the study of being - essentially studying questions of what kinds of entities exist) and issues of epistemology (the study of knowing - essentially studying what knowledge is and how it is possible) has been one of the key confusions in philosophy. This has been the case with numerous general schools of philosophy, almost always taking the form of ignoring ontology in favour of epistemology... Roy Bhaskar has identified what he calls the epistemic fallacy: that questions of ontology are reducible to questions of epistemology. Hence, the epistemic fallacy would assume that for any question of whether or not such and such exists, we should substitute the question of how we know that such and such exists... Hermeneutics tends to concentrate on the study of society rather than nature, usually abandoning the field of nature to positivism. They assert that the study of society is radically different from the study of nature. This, they say, is the case because in society people's reasons, their conceptualisations of what they are doing, are the cause of anything that happens. Unlike the concepts we use to understand nature, in the case of our efforts to understand society it is concepts themselves that we are trying to conceptualise. This demands an interpretive understanding of society where we try and grasp others' thoughts with our thoughts. This mistakenly, however, makes the study of society a matter of basically epistemology rather than ontology. Whilst it is correct to recognise that societies are a unique kind of entity, in that ideas can be causes, it is incorrect to reduce the study of society to understanding those ideas. There is much about society and the causes of things that happen within a society that is not simply ideas or caused by ideas.
It is not, of course, up to translators to resolve this issue. With regard to our own performance, to the degree that our beliefs and those of the people we are translating tend toward subjectivism, and our text distances itself from any concrete reference, we are better able to justify a more flexible approach to our craft (to practice the “art of translating”). The same is likely to apply when translating from (or into) a very different culture or historical period. In technology, medicine and the “hard sciences,” we, together with the specialists in those fields, should be at the forefront in insisting on conceptual and terminological formal equivalence, regardless of our own personal convictions.


Andersson, W. T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. New York, Harper & Row.

Gao Tianxin (2009). Einige Überlegungen über die moderne Übersetzungstheorie am Beispiel der Yijing-Übersetzung. . Accessed 12 May 2009.

Joyce, J. (1939). Finnegans Wake. London, Faber & Faber.

Joyce, J. (1999). Finnegans wake/Finnicius revém. Translation by Donaldo Schüler. Porto Alegre, Brazil, Ateliê Editorial.

Klausmeier, H.J. (1980). Learning and teaching concepts. New York, Academic Press.

Paepcke, F. (1988). Die Sprachwissenschaft ist eine Wissenschaft ohne Sprache,” IN Snell-Hornby, M. (1988), Translation studies: an integrated approach.” Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Pereira, I. and Schäffer, A. (no date). Como trabalhar a teoria de tradução nos cursos de formação de tradutores. . Accessed 12 May 2009.

Spencer, N. (2000). On the significance of distinguishing ontology and epistemology. . Accessed 12 May 2009.

Reeves, N. (1999). At the limits of language: the challenge of modernist literature to translation theories and practice. Hong Kong, Occasional Paper Series no. 10, Centre for Literature and Translation, Lingnan College.
Schäffer, A. (1996). A relevância da prática sobre a teoria ou vice-versa. IN Anais do IV Encontro de Professores de Línguas e Literaturas Estrangeiras / III Encontro Paulista de Pesquisadores, Assis, Brazil.
Silva, L (no date). A palavra não é o bastante (The word is not enough): uma apresentação de Finnicium Revém / Finnegans Wake, de Donaldo Schüler. . Accessed 12 May 2009.

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