Thursday, September 15, 2016

Translating as Conversion

This post is for theorists. If you don't like theory, highly speculative theory at that, just skip it.

A new article by Brian Mossop, a very experienced professor of translation at Toronto's York University, raises again the question of what is and is not translation (see Mossop 2016 in References below). It makes me think once more about my own concept of it.

In my ongoing quest for the fundamental nature of translating, my 1976 paper The Importance of Natural Translation was the first to postulate that translating is a triple competence:
"All bilinguals can translate. In addition to some competence in two languages L1 and L2, they all possess a third competence, that of translating from L1 to L2 and vice versa."
The 1978 paper Translating as an Innate Skill made a case for the third competence being inherited.

Then in 2009 I suggested that what bilinguals inherit which enables them to translate is not specifically a language competence but some more general ability. I called it conversion; it might have been called transformation (and indeed the transformations of transformational grammar are a good example of it), or substitution, etc., but having used conversion I'll stick with it. My inspiration came from the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov (1926-1976, see References). He devised a model of translating that was valid for both literary and documentary translation, two types that had been considered fundamentally different by the Russian linguists he studied with, as well as for machine translation; but conversion goes much further. As Ludskanov might himself have said - for it was a favourite expression of his - it went to "a higher level of abstraction."

So what is it? Here's a definition.
Conversion is the passage from a mental representation to another that preserves the information and feelings from the former which the converter wishes and has the capability to preserve.
Let's analyse it.

Why mental representation?. Because nothing in our minds is itself. Our little brains aren't big enough to contain even a fragment of the real world. And as for our thoughts and imaginings, they don't float like clouds in our brains. They have to be represented there in code, an encoding structure of neurons. Anyway the information; I'm not so sure about the feelings. Computers provide an analogy; there are no pictures in our computers, only coded digital patterns representing pictures.

Why feelings? Because we remember sensory and emotional feelings, either by themselves or attached to information. So they too have to be represented.

It is the converter, the human whose mind it is, who decides, consciously or unconsciously, what is preserved in the conversion. A typical criterion is perceived importance but there may be other considerations. Much of the original representation may be abandoned. To take an extreme example, the converter who is writing the abstract of an article will be obliged to abandon many of the details in the original. The converter may also add to the original.

Has the capability to preserve: The converter may not have the competence needed in order to preserve some elements of the original. For instance, in converting a verbal description to a drawing, the converter may just not be good at drawing. And there may be other obstacles.

The advantage of the conversion hypothesis over the translation hypothesis is that the former covers all forms of what theorists sometimes call translation (intralingual translation, intersemiotic translation, etc.) and not only what is commonly understood by it, that is to say interlingual translation. And it covers much else, for instance the passage from a visual representation to a musical one; operations that are often called adaptation. By the Occam's razor principle, it's better to assume one competence rather than many.

In interlingual translating, of course, the conversion is from a verbal expression – word, utterance, text – to another verbal expression. The conversion may be direct or it may proceed by conversion first from the source expression to an intermediate representation – imagining what is referred to or described for instance – and from that to the target expression; or both (see the Mossop 2003 reference below).

A subsidiary question is whether conversion is peculiarly human. Some animals may well possess it. But that's another story.

In the absence of empirical proof, both hypotheses, the specific translation one and the general conversion one, are equally possible. As for Occam's razor, "There is little empirical evidence that the world is actually simple or that simple accounts are more likely to be true than complex ones." Indeed nature is profligate. But the way in which my concept of conversion covers all types of what the theorists call translation, and more, is attractive. Perhaps a physical analogue for it will one day be found in the brain.

Brian Mossop. An alternative to 'deverbalization'. 2003.
Click [here] or go to

Brian Mossop. 'Intralingual translation' - a desirable concept? Across Languages and Cultures, vol. 17, no. 1, pp.1-24, 2016. Click [here] or go to

Aleksander Ludskanov. Prevezdat chovekat i machinata [Human and Machine Translation]. Revised edition edited by Elena Paskaleva. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980. In Bulgarian; there are French, German, Italian and Polish translations.

Brian Harris. The importance of natural translation. 1973. Available online at or click [here].

Brian Harris (as Translatology). Essential definitions. Unprofessional Translation, 2009. To retrieve it, enter essential definitions in the Search box on the right.

Source: 123RF