Translation as Rule-Governed Behaviour
The problems of radical translation occupy a central place in a number of long-standing controversies in philosophy and anthropology. The philosophical difficulties here concern the accurate recovery of speaker meaning in translation, in light of the following two problems: (1) the radical translator’s unwanted possession, in principle, of too many right answers-i.e., the availability in principle of empirically equivalent, yet divergent manuals of translation for a given society; and (2) the prima facie undesirable, yet perhaps inescapable need to impose what is grammatically and ontologically familiar to the linguist and to the target language community upon the source language community in translating their discourse. In short, these problems make clearly problematic whether translations meeting standard criteria of adequacy can ever be said to reveal what the source language speakers really mean. As many anthropologists, especially those in the ‘language and culture’ tradition generated by Boas, Cassirer, Sapir, and Whorf, take the recovery of such culturally specific significance as central to their discipline, worries about how to select translation manuals and related ethnographic systematizations (such as kinship organizations and disease taxonomies) that have demonstrable ‘cognitive (or psychological) validity’ seem to run very deep indeed. And such concerns cannot but be deepened by the fact that much reflection in the philosophical community on these problems, particularly as embodied in the work of W. V. Quine, is against the objective determinability of meaning in translation. For while anthropologists generally worry about how to validate claims about meaning and synonymy in light of these methodological difficulties, presuming them to be surmountable in principle, Quine cites just these problems in order to denigrate the various current notions of meaning and synonymy-by rendering illusory the ‘underlying’ semantic (or psychological) reality they purport to reveal.
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- Robert Feleppa