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Karl Weick on enactment, selection, and retention

Another formulation of much this same process is Karl Weick's in The Social

Psychology of Organizing. Weick begins with Darwin's model of natural selection,

The process of translation 89

"promptitude of action"



general unfocused readiness





rules, theories ^


—. (SECOND) <-






engagement with the real world

Figure 3 Peirce's instinct/experience/habit and abduction/induction/deduction triads in


which moves through stages of variation, selection, retention: a variation or mutation

in an individual organism is "selected" to be passed on to the next generation,

and thus genetically encoded or "retained" for the species as a whole. In social life,

he says, this process might better be described in the three stages of enactment,

selection, and retention.

As Em Griffin summarizes Weick's ideas in A First Look at Communication Theory,

in the first stage, enactment, you simply do something; you "wade into the swarm

of equivocal events and 'unrandomize' them" (Griffin 1994: 280). This is patently

similar to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls "abduction," the leap to a hypothesis (or

"unrandomization") from the "swarm of equivocal events" that surround you.

The move from enactment to selection is governed by a principle of "respond

now, plan later": "we can only interpret actions that we've already taken. That's why

Weick thinks chaotic action is better than orderly inaction. Common ends and

shared means are the result of effective organizing, not a prerequisite. Planning

comes after enactment" (Griffin 1994: 280).

There are, Weick says, two approaches to selection: rules and cycles. Rules (or

what Peirce would call deductions) are often taken to be the key to principled action,

but Weick is skeptical. Rules are really only useful in reasonably simple situations.

Because rules are formalized for general and usually highly idealized cases, they

most often fail to account for the complexity of real cases. Sometimes, in fact, two

conflicting rules seem to apply simultaneously to a single situation, which only

complicates the "selection" process. One rule will solve one segment of the problem;

in attempting to force the remainder of the problem into compliance with that rule,

another rule comes into play and undermines the authority of the first. Therefore,

Weick says, in most cases "cycles" are more useful in selecting the optimum course

of action.

There are many different cycles, but all of them deal in trial and error — or

what Peirce calls induction. The value of Weick's formulation is that he draws our

attention to the cyclical nature of induction: you cycle out away from the problem

in search of a solution, picking up possible courses of action as you go, then cycle

back in to the problem to try out what you have learned. You try something and

it doesn't work, which seems to bring you right back to where you started, except

that now you know one solution that won't work; you try something and it does

work, so you build it into the loop, to try again in future cycles.

Perhaps the most important cycle for the translator is what Weick calls the

act—response—adjustment cycle, involving feedback ("response") from the people

on whom your trial-and-error actions have an impact, and a resulting shift

("adjustment") in your actions. This cycle is often called collaborative decisionmaking;

it involves talking to people individually and in small groups, calling them

on the phone, sending them faxes and e-mail messages, taking them to lunch, trying

out ideas, having them check your work, etc. Each interactive "cycle" not only

generates new solutions, one brainstorm igniting another; it also eliminates old and

unworkable ones, moving the complicated situation gradually toward clarity and

a definite decision. As Em Griffin says, "Like a full turn of the crank on an oldfashioned

clothes wringer, each communication cycle squeezes equivocality out of

the situation" (Griffin 1994: 281).

The third stage is retention, which corresponds to Peirce's notion of habit. Unlike

Peirce, however, Weick refuses to see retention as the stable goal of the whole

process. In order for the individual or the group to respond flexibly to new situations,

the enactment—selection—retention process must itself constantly work in a

cycle, each "retention" repeatedly being broken up by a new "enactment." Memory,

Weick says, should be treated like a pest; while old solutions retained in memory

provide stability and some degree of predictability in an uncertain world, that

stability — often called "tradition" or "the way things have always been" — can also

stifle flexibility. The world remains uncertain no matter what we do to protect

ourselves from it; we must always be prepared to leap outside of "retained" solutions

to new enactments. In linguistic terms, the meanings and usages of individual words

and phrases change, and the translator who refuses to change with them will not

last long in the business. "Chaotic action" is the only escape from "orderly inaction."

(This is not to say that all action must be chaotic; only that not all action can ever

be orderly, and that the need to maintain order at all costs can frequently lead to

inaction.) In Griffin's words again, "Weick urges leaders to continually discredit much

of what they think they know — to doubt, argue, contradict, disbelieve, counter,

challenge, question, vacillate, and even act hypocritically" (Griffin 1994: 283).

What this process model of translation suggests in Peirce's terms, then, is that novice

translators begin by approaching a text with an instinctive sense that they know how

to do this, that they will be good at it, that it might be fun; with their first actual

experience of a text they realize that they don't know how to proceed, but take an

abductive guess anyway; and soon are translating away, learning inductively as

they go, by trial and error, making mistakes and learning from those mistakes; they

gradually deduce patterns and regularities that help them to translate faster and

more effectively; and eventually these patterns and regularities become habit or

second nature, are incorporated into a subliminal activity of which they are only

occasionally aware; they are constantly forced to revise what they have learned

through contact with new texts. In Weick's terms, the enact—select—retain cycle

might be reformulated as translate, edit, sublimate:

1 Translate: act; jump into the text feet first; translate intuitively.

2 Edit: think about what you've done; test your intuitive responses against

everything you know; but edit intuitively too, allowing an intuitive first

translation to challenge (even successfully) a well-reasoned principle that you

believe in deeply; let yourself feel the tension between intuitive certainty and

cognitive doubt, and don't automatically choose one over the other; use the

act—response—adjustment cycle rather than rigid rules.

3 Sublimate: internalize what you've learned through this give-and-take process

for later use; make it second nature; make it part of your intuitive repertoire;

but sublimate it flexibly, as a directionality that can be redirected in conflictual

circumstances; never, however, let subliminal patterns bind your flexibility;

always be ready if needed "to doubt, argue, contradict, disbelieve, counter,

challenge, question, vacillate, and even act hypocritically (be willing to break jour

own rules).n

The model traces a movement from bafflement before a specific problem through

a tentative solution to the gradual expansion of such solutions into a habitual pattern

of response. The model assumes that the translator is at once:

(a) a professional, for whom many highly advanced problem-solving processes and

techniques have become second nature, occurring rapidly enough to enhance

especially the freelancer's income and subliminally enough that s/he isn't

necessarily able to articulate those processes and techniques to others, or even,

perhaps, to herself or himself; and

(b) a learner, who not only confronts and must solve new problems on a daily basis

but actually thrives on such problems, since novelties ensure variety, growth,

interest, and enjoyment.

Throughout the book, this model of the process of translation will suggest specific

recommendations for the translator's "education," in a broad sense that includes both

training (and training either in the classroom or on the job) and learning through

personal discovery and insight. What are the kinds of experiences (abductive intuitive

leaps, inductive sifting and testing, deductive generalizing) that will help the translator

continue to grow and improve as a working professional? How can they best

be habitualized, sublimated, transformed from "novel" experiences or lessons that

must be thought about carefully into techniques that seem to come naturally?

As Peirce conceives the movement from instinct through experience to habit,

habit is the end: instinct and experience are combined to create habit, and there it

stops. Weick's corrective model suggests that in fact Peirce's model must be bent

around into a cycle, specifically an act—response—adjustment cycle, in which each

adjustment becomes a new act, and each habit comes to seem like "instinct" (see

Figure 4).

This diagram can be imagined as the wheel of a car, the line across at the top

marking the direction of the car's movement, forward to the right, backward to the

left. As long as the wheel is moving in a clockwise direction, the car moves forward,

the translation process proceeds smoothly, and the translator /driver is only

occasionally aware of the turning of the wheel(s). The line across the top is labeled

"habit" and "intuition" because, once the experiential processes of abduction, induction,

and deduction have been sublimated, they operate sub- or semi consciously:

the smooth movement of the top line from left to right may be taken to indicate the

smooth clockwise spinning of the triadic circle beneath it. This movement might

be charted as follows:

The translator approaches new texts, new jobs, new situations with an intuitive

or instinctive readiness, a sense of her or his own knack for languages and translation

that is increasingly, with experience, steeped in the automatisms of habit. Instinct

habit intuition and habit for Peirce were both, you will remember, a readiness to act; the only

difference between them is that habit is directed by experience.

Experience begins with general knowledge of the world (Chapter 5), experience

of how various people talk and act (Chapter 6), experience of professions (Chapter

7), experience of the vast complexity of languages (Chapter 8), experience of social

networks (Chapter 9), and experience of the differences among cultures, norms,

values, assumptions (Chapter 10). This knowledge or experience will often need

to be actively sought, constructed, consolidated, especially but not exclusively at

the beginning of the translator's career; with the passing of years the translator's

subliminal repertoire of world experience will expand and operate without her or

his conscious knowledge.

On the cutting edge of contact with an actual text or job or situation, the

translator has an intuition or image of her or his ability to solve whatever problems

come up, to leap abductivelj over obstacles to new solutions. Gradually the "problems"

or "difficulties" will begin to recur, and to fall into patterns. This is induction. As the

translator begins to notice and articulate, or read about, or take classes on, these

patterns and regularities, deduction begins, and with it the theorizing of translation.

At the simplest level, deduction involves a repertoire of blanket solutions to a

certain class of problems — one of the most primitive and yet, for many translators,

desirable forms of translation theory. Each translator's deductive principles are

typically built up through numerous trips around the circle (abductions and

inductions gradually building to deductions, deductions becoming progressively

habitualized); each translator will eventually develop a more or less coherent theory

of translation, even if s/he isn't quite able to articulate it. (It will probably be mostly

subliminal; in fact, whatever inconsistencies in the theory are likely to be conflicts

between the subliminal parts, which were developed through practical experience,

and the articulate parts, which were most likely learned as precepts.) Because this

sort of effective theory arises out of one's own practice, another person's deductive

solutions to specific problems, as offered in a theory course or book, for example,

will typically be harder to remember, integrate, and implement in practice. At

higher levels this deductive work will produce regularities concerning whole registers,

text-types, and cultures; thus various linguistic forms of text analysis (Chapter 8),

social processes (Chapter 9), and systematic analyses of culture (Chapter 10).

This is the "perfected" model of the translation process, the process as we would

all like it to operate all the time. Unfortunately, it doesn't. There are numerous

hitches in the process, from bad memory and inadequate dictionaries all the way

up through untranslatable words and phrases (realia, puns, etc.) to the virtually

unsolvable problems of translating across enormous power differentials, between,

say, English and various Third World languages. The diagram allows us to imagine

these "hitches" kinesthetically: you stop the car, throw it into reverse, back up to

avoid an obstacle or to take another road. This might be traced as a counterclockwise

movement back around the circle.

The subliminal autopilot fails; something comes up that you cannot solve with

existing habitualized repertoires (Chapter 11). In many cases the subliminal process

will be stopped automatically by bafflement, an inability to proceed; in other cases

you will grow gradually more and more uneasy about the direction the translation

is taking, until finally you are no longer able to stand the tension between apparent

subliminal "success" and the gnawing vague sense of failure, and throw on the brakes

and back up. As we have seen, you can also build an alarm system, perhaps an

automatic emergency brake system, into the "habit" or subliminal functioning, so

that certain words, phrases, registers, cultural norms, or the like stop the process

and force you to deal consciously, alertly, analytically with a problem. This sort of

alarm or brake system is particularly important when translating in a politically

difficult or sensitive context, as when you feel that your own experience is so

alien from the source author's that unconscious error is extremely likely (as when

translating across the power differentials generated by gender, race, or colonial

experience); or when you find yourself in opposition to the source author's views.

And so, forced out of subliminal translating, you begin to move consciously,

analytically, with full intellectual awareness, back around the circle, through

deduction and the various aspects of induction to abduction — the intuitive leap to

some novel solution that may even fly in the face of everything you know and believe

but neverthelessje<?7s right. Every time one process fails, you move to another: listing

synonyms doesn't help, so you open the dictionary; the word or phrase isn't in the

dictionary, or the options offered all look or feel wrong, so you call or fax or e-mail

a friend or acquaintance who might be able to help, or send out a query over an

Internet listserver; they are no help, so you plow through encyclopedias and other

reference materials; if you have no luck there, you call the agency or client; and

finally, if nobody knows, you go with your intuitive sense, generate a translation

abductively, perhaps marking the spot with a question mark for the agency or client

to follow up on later. Translating a poem, you may want to jump to abduction almost


And note that the next step after abduction, moving back around the circle

counterclockwise, is once again the subliminal translation autopilot: the solution to

this particular problem, whether generated deductively, inductively, or abductively

(or through some combination of the three), is incorporated into your habitual

repertoire, where it may be used again in future translations, perhaps tested

inductively, generalized into a deductive principle, even made the basis of a new

theoretical approach to translation.

The rest of this book is structured to follow the circle: first clockwise, in Chapters

5—10, beginning with subliminal translation and moving through the various forms

of experience to an enriched subliminality; then (rather more rapidly) counterclockwise,

in Chapter 11, exploring the conscious analytical procedures the translator

uses when subliminal translation fails. In each case we will be concerned with the tension between experience and habit, the startling and the subliminal — specifically,

with how one slides from one to the other, sublimating fresh experiential discoveries

into an effective translating "habit," bouncing back out of subliminal translation into

various deductive, inductive, and abductive problem-solving procedures.