Indeterminacy of translation--theory and practice

To an ordinary translator, the idea that there are too many perfect translation schemes between any two languages would come as a surprise. Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation expresses just this idea. It implies that most of the 'implicit canons' actual translators use in their assessment of translations lack objective status. My dissertation is an attempt to present a systematic challenge to Quine's view of language and to support the idea that one could develop an objective theory of translation which is also faithful to actual translation practices. ;I expose a non-superficial similarity between external-world scepticism and Quine's meaning-scepticism, and deploy against Quine an objection which closely resembles his own objection to external-world scepticism. I then develop a new interpretation of Quine's reasoning, according to which denying objective status to intuitive 'meanings' is Quine's way of avoiding a sceptical problem about what other people 'really' mean. ;I argue that the intelligibility of Quine's meaning-scepticism turns on an implicit contrast between the perspective of the theorist of language and the perspective of the user of language. Quine's defense of his scepticism features a theorist of language trying to probe an alien language-- a 'radical translator' -- who reasons that her own judgments as a language user lack objective status. ;I take issue with the use Quine makes of the above contrast. I first argue that understanding the goal of radical translators requires knowing what is to be expected of an adequate translation scheme. Since this is something we learn from experience with existing translation schemes, I offer a pre-theoretic description of the practice of translation between known languages. I show how ordinary translators' assessments of the quality of given translations derive from systematic judgments they make as language-users. It is these sorts of judgments that guide actual radical translators in ruling out bizarre alternative translations of the kind Quine entertains in defending his scepticism. A proper theoretical account of radical translation, I conclude, must begin with-- and include-- the perspective of the radical translator as a language-user
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DOI 10.2307/2108253
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Keith Simmons (1994). Paradoxes of Denotation. Philosophical Studies 76 (1):71 - 106.

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