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What could that be? (abduction)

Understanding someone else's utterance or written message is far more complicated

than we tend to think. Common sense says that if we hear or read a text in a language

we know well, and the text is syntactically and semantically well formed, we will

understand it. Indeed, offhand it is difficult to imagine a case in which that understanding

might not immediately and automatically follow.

But there are plenty of such cases. The most common is when you expect to be

addressed in one language, say, a foreign or B language, and are addressed in another,

say, your native or A language: until you adjust your expectations and really "hear"

the utterance as an A-language text, it may sound like B-language gibberish. This

is especially true when you are in a foreign country where you do not expect anyone

to speak your language; if someone does address you in your native tongue,

even with perfect pronunciation and grammar, your expectations may well block

understanding. Even after three or four repetitions, you may finally have to ask, "I'm

sorry, what language are you speaking?" When you are told that it is your native

tongue, all of a sudden the random phonemes leap into coherent order and the

utterance makes sense.

This is abduction: the leap from confusing data to a reasonable hypothesis. And

it happens even with utterances in our native language that should have been easy

to understand. Something blocks our ability to make sense of a language, misleading

expectations, distractions (as when you hear a friend or a parent or a spouse talking,

you hear and register and understand all the words, but nothing makes sense because

your mind is elsewhere), and all of a sudden what should have been easy becomes

hard; what should have been automatic requires a logical leap, an abduction.

When the utterance or written text is not perfectly formed, this experience is

even more common.

1 Your 10-month-old infant points at something on the table and says "Gah!"

When you don't understand, she points again and repeats, "Gah!" more

insistently. The child clearly knows what she is trying to say; she just doesn't

speak your language. How do you reach a working interpretation? How do you

become a competent interpreter of your infant's language? Through trial and

error: you pick up every item on the table, look at the child quizzically, and

say "This?" (or "Gah?"). Based on your knowledge of other languages, of course,

you make certain assumptions that guide your guesswork: you assume, for

instance, that "Gah" is probably a noun, referring to a specific object on the

table, or a verb ("Give!"), or an imperative sentence ("Give me that thing that

I want!"). Parents usually become skilled interpreters of their infants' languages

quite quickly. The infant experiments constantly with new words and phrases,

requiring new abductions, but repeated exposure to the old ones rapidly builds

up B-language competence in the parents, and they calmly interpret for visitors

who hear nothing but random sounds.

2 Fully competent native speakers of a language do not always use that language

in a way that certain observers are pleased to call "rational": they do not

say what they mean, they omit crucial information, they conceal their true

intentions, they lie, they exaggerate, they use irony or sarcasm, they speak

metaphorically. The English philosopher Paul Grice (1989: 22-40), best known

as the founder of linguistic pragmatics, tried famously in a lecture entitled

"Logic and Conversation" to explain precisely how we make sense of speakers

who "flout" the rational rules of conversation; it wasn't enough for him that

listeners make inspired guesses, or abductions: there had to be some "regimen"

to follow, a series of steps that would lead interpreters to the correct interpretation

of a problematic utterance. Clearly, there is something to this; we are

rarely utterly in the dark when guessing at another person's meaning. Clearly

also, however, Grice overstated his case. The bare fact that we so often guess

wrong suggests that understanding (or "abducing") problematic utterances

has as much to do with creative imagination, intuition, and sheer luck as it does

with rational regimens (see Robinson 1986, 2003).

3 Learning a foreign language obviously requires thousands of guesses or


4 And, of course, translators are forever stumbling upon words they have never

seen before, words that appear in no dictionary they own, words for which they

must find exact target-language equivalents by tomorrow.

It is my second or third week in Finland. I have learned that "no" is ei and "yes"

is joo (pronounced / y o : / ) . To my great puzzlement, I frequently hear people

saying what sounds like *e/ joo, which I translate as "no yes." This doesn't make

sense, but whenever I ask anybody about it, they always insist that there is no

such phrase in Finnish, no one would ever say that, it doesn't make sense, etc.

And yet I hear it repeatedly. Whenever I hear my friends say it, I stop them: "You

said it again!" "What?" "Ei joo." "No I didn't. You can't say that in Finnish."

Finally, after about two weeks of this frustration, someone realizes what I'm

talking about: ei oo, pronounced exactly like *ei joo, is a colloquial form of

ei ole, meaning "it isn't." Having explained this, he adds: "But you shouldn't

say that, because it's bad Finnish." Finnish teachers, I later discover, actively

discourage this colloquialism: hence "bad Finnish." As a result, even though

everyone still uses it constantly, my friends repress their knowledge of it when

I ask about it, and find it extremely difficult to realize what I'm referring to. It

requires almost as big an abductive leap for them to understand my question as

it does for me to ask it.

Hello Lantrans,

Can anyone tell me the

and/or define what it means'

this entry.


Your call can either be

Dutch translation of "flat fee"

? My dictionary


a per minute rate or to your credit

or American Express) at a

Thanks, best regards,

Gabor Menkes


flat fee.

does not contain

to your phone bill at

card ( Visa, Mastercard

Translation at this level is painfully slow. A translator may spend hours tracking down

a difficult word: poring through dictionaries on the shelf and on-line, calling, faxing,

and e-mailing friends and acquaintances who might know it, calling the agency or

client and asking for help. A translator may hate or love this part of this job; but

a translator who is unwilling to do it will not last long in the profession. Since

translators are rarely paid by the hour, and the pay per word is the same for a

word that requires hours to find as it is for "the" or "and," their financial motivation

to track down the right word may be almost nil; the only reasons to continue the

search despite its diminishing monetary returns are:

 (a) translator ethics, the professional's determination to submit an accurate and

correct translation

(b) professional pride, the translator's need to feel good about the work s/he does

(c) a pragmatic concern for repeat business: the agency or client who is pleased

with the translator's work will call her or him again; and

(d) a love of language, producing a deep satisfaction in the word-hunt or the "rightness"

of the right word, or both.

Doing things with words (induction)

If the hunt for the right word or the right phrase is painfully slow and therefore

lamentably underpaid, it can also be one of the translator's greatest professional

joys. Reading in books and articles one would never ordinarily read, learning things

one would never ordinarily learn, talking to people on the phone about their area

of expertise: this can all be drudgery, of course, but it can also be exciting and

emotionally and intellectually rewarding. The translator who takes pleasure in this

underpaid hunt, it should go without saying, is less likely to burn out in the job than

one who hates it and only does it out of a sense of professional ethics or duty.

Unpleasant duties quickly become straitjackets.

The other side of this process is that the hunt for the right word or phrase is

usually so intense that the right word is later easy to remember: the "solution" to

the translator's problem sticks easily in her/his memory and can be retrieved quickly

for later use. Translation memory software performs this same function for many

translators, "remembering" not only the words the translator has used in the past

but the contexts in which s/he used them; but since this software too requires a few

keystrokes or mouse-clicks, most translators who use it do so mainly for backup,

relying primarily on their own neural memories for most words and phrases.

In other words, the "new words" that take so long to find and seem, therefore, to

"steal" or "waste" the translator's time and money are sublimated for later use — and

when used in a later translation, the relative speed with which they are remembered

begins to earn back the time and money that seemed so extravagantly spent before.

Indeed, the factor that contributes most to the professional translator's speed and

accuracy is the internalization and sublimation not only of words but of certain

linguistic "transfer patterns" — well-worn pathways from one language to another

that the translator has traveled so many times that s/he could do it while talking to

a friend on the phone, or planning a menu for dinner, or worrying about a financial

crisis. One glance at the source-text syntax and the translator's fingers fly across the

keyboard, as if driven by a macro.

And in some sense they are. The brain doesn't work like a computer in all respects

— it is far more complicated, far more elastic and flexible, far more creative, and in

some things far slower — but in this it does: oft-repeated activities are softwired into a neural network that works very much like a computer macro, dictating keystrokes

or other steps in a more or less fixed sequence and at great speed. Thus, the novice

translator can take two or three hours to translate a 300-word text that would

take a professional translator twenty or thirty minutes; and the discriminating

reader will find twenty major errors in the novice translator's rendition and a single

slightly questionable word or phrase in the professional translator's version. Practice

doesn't exactly make perfect; but it brings exponential increases in speed and


But what is happening in the inductive process of internalizing these transfer

patterns? What is the translator experiencing, and how can that experience be


Linguistically speaking, the translator is experiencing a transformation of

what people do with words. This phrase, taken from J. L. Austin's (1962/1976) famous

book title How To Do Things With Words, covers all language: language is what people

do with words. In Chapter 6 we explored the importance of what people do, and in

Chapter 7 of what working people do, precisely because all language users are human

beings, social animals, doing things with words. The French lawyer in her office in

Paris does certain things with words; the Japanese lawyer in his office in Tokyo does

certain other things with words; the French-Japanese legal translator uses what both

lawyers do with words to do new things with words. The translator transforms what

people do with words.

But then, that is nothing new; all language users transform what people

do with words. All language use is repetition, but never of exactly the same

thing. Even the most repetitive language use transforms the "old thing" in some

new way.

More specifically, source-culture people do certain things with words in the

source text, and it is the translator's job to do new (but more or less recognizable)

things with them in the target language. In the process those "things" done with

words undergo a sea change. At first this change feels like a metamorphosis of infinite

variety, a change so infinite that it cannot be reduced to patterns. Every word and

every sequence of words must be taken on its own, thought about, reflected upon,

weighed and tested, poked and prodded. The more often one makes the trip,

however, the more familiar the transformations become; gradually they begin to fall

into patterns; gradually translation comes to seem easier and easier.

The inductive process of wading through tens of thousands of such transfers

until the patterns begin to emerge is, as Karl Weick would say, a process of

"unrandomizing" what at first seems to be chaos. At first it is difficult to hold ten or

fifteen foreign words in your head; then it is easy to hold those ten or fifteen words

as discrete lexical items, each one having a specific meaning in your native tongue,

but difficult to use them in a sentence, or even to decipher them in an existing

sentence. Gradually those ten or fifteen words become easy to use in a certain kind

of sentence, but then they appear in another kind of sentence and once again make no sense at all. But we hate disorder. We long for structure, for pattern. We keep

doing things with words until they start making sense. We impose false order on

them if need be, and get corrected, and try again. Eventually the things we do with

source-language words begin to seem coherent — to ourselves, and eventually to

others as well.

How does the translator do this? How does the translator impose the kind of order

on the "things s/he does with words" that clients and project managers recognize

as a successful translation? By imitating, mostly. We get a feel for how others do

things, and try to do them in a similar way ourselves. But because we are separate

beings, because we inhabit separate bodies, we can never imitate anything exactly.

We always transform what we imitate. When we do things, including when we do

things with words, we may try very hard to do what other people do, but we will

always end up doing something at least slightly new.

The trick, then, is to convince other people that this "slightly new" thing you've

done with words in fact is a reliable reproduction of the old thing done by the source

author or speaker. That too involves imitation: we watch others, watch what they

do when they do things with words and people with money take those things to be

"translations" — reliable, accurate, professional translations.

What we do not do is sit down with a comprehensive set of rules for linguistic

equivalence and create a text that conforms to them. That is the image projected

by traditional linguists when they have studied translation; the image does not

correspond to reality.