Intentionalism and the Arts

Conversation between Vittorio Pelosi and translator Samantha Christie

Translation and Intentism: A Dialogue

My name is Samantha Christie. I’m a literary translator and am currently pursuing an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. We have recently been discussing the idea of looking outside the field of translation studies for theories which ‘belong’ to other disciplines, but which still have significance for translation. Fields such as linguistics, literature, sociology, philosophy and cultural studies can all provide new and interesting ways of thinking about translation. I’m interested in this idea of ‘borrowing’ a way of thinking and thought I’d experiment with the idea by trying to see whether an outside theory could be relevant for, or even inform translation.

Vittorio Pelosi, a founding member of the Intentist movement, is a friend of mine and over February-March 2011, I spoke to him about translation and Intentism, to get a better understanding of whether they are compatible. Below is an edited version of the conversation between Vittorio (not a translator) and myself (not necessarily an Intentist).

Samantha Christie: Can you provide a brief introduction to your ideas?

Vittorio Pelosi: It was said in a seminal work called 'The Intentional Fallacy' by Wimsatt and Beardsley that not only can intentions not be accurately found, but even if they were, they would not be useful in understanding meaning. However, Intentists believe that the work is the 'vehicle' of the meaning and that intentions imbue the work with meaning. If you want to distill our theory into a statement, I suppose it would be that 'all meaning is the outworking of intention.' This is to say, intention by itself is not meaning, as intention is a 'performance expectation'. However, once the intention has been realized, the meaning is found in what was intended.

SC: Where do you think Intentism stands in relation to translation? Are there any translators already working within an Intentist framework? Has it been written about?

VP: Intentists believe that a translator should put the author's intention (originally formed in one language) in a new set of signs (language.) Professor William Irwin, an Intentist and an American philosopher, has touched on this. He quotes Gadamer, who was against much of what Intentists believe. Gadamer said that however much a translator can empathize with the original author, the translator cannot re-awaken the original process in the writer's mind. Instead, the translator re-creates the text guided by the way he understands what it says. And Jorge J. E. Gracia makes an interesting distinction. He says that the translator can be a new author, but only the author of a new text, since the translator chooses new signs and nothing has been written in this language like this before. However, he can't be the author of the work, since that remains with the original creator.

SC: Gadamer’s point is quite a common view amongst translation scholars. We're almost trained to see ourselves in that way, actually. I agree with him. Though I also think it depends on what type of text is being translated and why - if it's a two-line answer to a question, something quite close

will probably be appropriate. If it's a poem or a highly stylised piece of writing, I think re-creating or rewriting comes into it more. There is more involvement from the translator and there are some cases where you have to restructure phrases in order for them to make sense in English, or add a short extra sentence to explain something culturally-specific. I agree with Gracia, too. The translator is the author of a new text; a re-created text.

VP: Intentists believe 'No creative input, no meaning input’ - meaning that anyone who creates something or adds to it creatively, adds to it epistemologically.

SC: I find this very interesting from a translation viewpoint. I see the translator as a separate entity from the author, not just an extension. Inevitably when translating, some of your personal views or style of language will seep in, as Mona Baker has discussed, or you may deliberately try to translate in a certain way to highlight certain things. We've already established that we have a creative input into the translation, so if we think of the translation alone, couldn't we see that the translator has a meaning input as well? I don't just mean by putting it into a new language we get the new meaning (or same meaning in a different language), I mean by the translation choices made. For example, translating a text in such a way as to emphasize its feminist elements, or translating for a new audience, such as a children’s version. In this way, the translator’s intention supersedes the author’s.

VP: I think I agree. There needs to be a distinguishable difference between the work before the creative act and afterwards. So for example, some postmodernists believe in the creative eye. This is their way of saying when you look at a work you construct the signs and symbols through your creative frame of reference. This is another way of saying meaning comes from the viewer and not the author. I don't think this holds water. It has been put to me this way: I visit a gallery and I see a work I had seen before. Between my visits it has been seen by another without my knowing. Could I tell from the work alone? Surely not. The work is unchanged. Therefore, there is no genuine creative input that changes the works meaning. (Different cultures and generations can have different views of a work, but that is new significance, not meaning.) However, obviously a translation directly affects the text. So I think I would agree.

SC: If I have understood correctly, you see the role of a translator (from an Intentist point of view) as conveying in another language the original author's intentions and therefore meaning. I would agree, I think that's what we do too, but from experience, it's very difficult to know those intentions and we often have to make an educated guess - and that guess come from OUR interpretation of the text. Does that mean that where an author is unavailable or dead or their intentions aren't written down somewhere, you believe that a translation can occur, but not an 'Intentist' translation, so to speak?

VP: I don't think there actually is a problem when the author is dead or unavailable. I think most of the time when we try and understand a work for its meaning or translation we invariably introduce an author instinctively. For example, if you were translating Heidegger's Being and Time from the German, it would be quite natural to ask ‘what did Heidegger mean by this sentence?’ So even if we have a text discovered that cannot be carbon dated and for some reason cannot be linked to any culture or author, we still invariably link it to a mind. In sum, I think translations can certainly be Intentist when the creator is dead.

SC: Wasn’t it E. D. Hirsch, Jr. who wrote about needing to link the text to a mind? Your instinctive author echoes what some areas of translation studies have called the ‘implied author’. It suggests the author can be uncovered by closely studying the text. I understand Intentists to mean the same thing when you refer to an ‘implicit intender’.


VP: I think the concepts of implicit intender and the implied author do have several crossovers but I think they have certain differences. The implied author is a different entity to the author, in that he or she is only inferred from the work. Therefore, it is possible that the work may point to a different understanding of the author than was actually the case. I would suggest that the implied author is important since it establishes the importance of authorship and as I have said before that all works are ultimately human gestures and to appreciate the work is to appreciate this human gesture.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. also believed there can be new significances or associations to a work, but the meaning remains stable because the intention of the creator has not changed. Your earlier comment about making your own interpretation of the text is important. Gadamer spoke of the hermeneutical circle whereby the baggage that we have when coming to a work means that we will never get to the heart of the text. We will always translate it through our own eyes. A recent book called The Hermeneutical Spiral, by Osborne, maintains that by close reading of the text and relevant understanding of its context we can get close enough to translate it perfectly but not 'omnisciently’.

SC: A ‘perfect’ translation – the Holy Grail! It feels like it can always be refined…

VP: I think when a translation is made, there will always be something lost. It is interesting that even fundamentalists generally don't believe bible translations are inerrant, but consider only the Greek of Hebrew to be divinely inspired. It is interesting, too, that since language is a living thing and permanently vulnerable to flux, it was considered prudent to revise the King James Bible into modern English (The New King James Bible.) The reason came down to intention and authorship. The original writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek, which was the language of the common people; the intention being so that it would be most widely understood.

SC: Are you familiar with Skopos theory? Your King James Bible example seems to fit well with that. It's widely about the function of a translation. Why is it being translated, for whom, what is its purpose? In this case, the purpose was to help the vulgate understand or have access to the word of God. So here, what I call the purpose, you call the intention. Are they the same thing, then? I'm talking about the text and you're talking about the people - is that the difference?

VP: I think we are talking about similar things. I am always concerned about using purpose or intention for a text. I can't think of any other inanimate thing that regularly has purpose or intention. If I said what's the purpose of a pen or a TV, as far as I can imagine we mean what's the human purpose for it. Take for example, a beautiful scene from nature or a painting of the same scene. The painting would certainly have meaning, but would the scene from nature? Certainly men like Richard Dawkins say nature has no meaning. Why? Because unlike the painting, nature has no intender or creator behind it (unless you are a deist/theist of course). So I believe texts, as a collection of arbitrary signs have no meaning if separated from a mind. Gadamer spoke of the effective history of the work, meaning that a work continually changes meaning and purpose in different times and cultures. Intentists don't deny this change but maintain that is the change in human minds, not the text. We therefore talk about the work constantly changing in SIGNIFICANCE. However, we believe that all the epistemological qualities of a work (meaning not significance) are settled when the author finishes his work. Otherwise I could look at Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and say the purpose of the work has changed and the meaning has and the work is now finished.

SC: I'm interested in the Creative Trail which Intentists incorporate into their work. This ties in very well with translation. There exists a notion that translators are invisible (not only in terms of the limited recognition of the profession, scarce credits, and low pay, but also in that most Anglo-American readers believe a 'good' translation is one which reads as though it was originally written in English, with no sign of ever having been translated.) Some translators and theorists (particularly Lawrence Venuti) try to make the translation visible by including features in the translation that remind the reader it is a translation – maybe by keeping occasional foreign words or some part of the translation process. The Creative Trail would be a fantastic way of doing this (although unpublishable, probably!)

VP: I'm very interested in what you say about Venuti! The creative trail, as you say, is a way of demonstrating the creative process. In any work (including translations) there are multiple intentions from the overriding idea to ideas that you select or discard. Intentists try to keep suggestions of this process in the work.

SC: Well, Vittorio, this has given me a lot to think about in terms of the relationship between Intentism and translation. Thankyou very much.

VP: No problem! Thanks so much for your interest in all these things.