Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Polysemy of 'Natural Translation'

Terms are more specific than common language words, but they don’t belong to anybody in particular like names do, not even to their coiners; they enjoy no exclusivity, and so anybody has the right to copy them and modify their meaning. They can be borrowed or they may pre-exist.

When I introduced the term natural translation in 1972, I should perhaps have done more homework. For two reasons. First, the term was already widely used by translators to mean something different from what is meant by it in this blog. What they usually mean is a translation that is idiomatic, ‘natural sounding’. Indeed if you search for “natural translation” with one of the web browsers, that’s the meaning you will get nine times or more out of ten.

Secondly, the term is also found in fields outside translation. I have before me, as an example, a paper entitled Evolution by Natural Translation. Since its author is Jesper Hoffmeyer of the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Copenhagen, you can guess not only at the field but also at the other publication alluded to.

So natural translation is polysemous, as are a great many technical terms. Eugen Wüster and other eminent terminologists have advocated making all technical terms biunivocal (i.e. with only one meaning for each term and only one term for each concept); but their dream can only ever be partially realised, because even terms are part of natural language and everything natural is continually diversifying. Disambiguation is achieved by looking at context.

Might there have been better term? Naive Translation? Not bad. Intuitive Translation? Good too. Untrained Translation? A suitable cover term to include both natural and native translation. And insofar as most of it is spoken, it could also be called Natural Interpreting (a suggestion made early on by Otto Kade of Leipzig). Anyway, we can’t put back the clock. But when searching with browsers for natural translation, you can try to cut down the noise by adding a contextualising word like children, bilinguals or brokering.

No comments:

Post a Comment