Context and Pragmatics

In Piers Rawling & Philip Wilson (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy. London: Routledge. pp. 195-208 (2018)
Shyam Ranganathan
York University
Syntax has to do with rules that constrain how words can combine to make acceptable sentences. Semantics (Frege and Russell) concerns the meaning of words and sentences, and pragmatics (Austin and Grice) has to do with the context bound use of meaning. We can hence distinguish between three competing principles of translation: S—translation preserves the syntax of an original text (ST) in the translation (TT); M—translation preserves the meaning of an ST in a TT; and P—translation preserves the pragmatics of an ST in a TT. A prominent form of P is functionalism defended by linguists and translation theorists (J.R. Firth, Eugene Nida, Susan Bassnett and many others) and historically was defended by philosophers (Russell, Ogden and Richard) but abandoned by philosophers and criticized by Wittgenstein. If we adopt M, then a TT will always say exactly what the ST says, and hence all subsequent TTs, even alternative ones produced via M, will be consistent with each other. But if we adopt P, in contrast, we have no reason to believe that the TTs will say what the ST does, and moreover they can contradict each other. If such contradictory translations are produced on the basis of the totality of empirical evidence, it results in what Quine called the indeterminacy of translation. Yet, P is not easy to reject. In many cases, translation in accordance with M where the meaning to be preserved is linguistic results in TTs that are failures. In contrast to a language focused approach to semantics, I close by following a lead in the translation theory literature of identifying text-types (genres) as a tool for identifying translatable content in an ST. To individuate text-types I identify them with disciplines, as elucidated by the 2nd century Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra. This allows for the definition of textual meaning as the discipline relative pragmatics of an ST and further for translation to proceed by way of M, while taking the intuitions that motivate P seriously. Translations that preserve textual meaning will not only have the same meaning as each other but will be pragmatically felicitous.
Keywords translation  pragmatics  semantics  syntax  functionalism  proposition  validity  indeterminacy of translation  context  Yoga Sutra
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