Volume 12, No. 3 
July 2008


Maite Aragonés


Front Page

Select one of the previous 44 issues.


Index 1997-2008

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
On Becoming a Translator
by Salvador Virgen

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Everything’s Comin’ up Roses (with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)
by Bernie Bierman
Navigating in a New Era: Translators in the Age of Image and Speech
by Eileen B. Hennessy
Supply and Demand Analysis of Patent Translation
by Yvonne Tsai

  In Memoriam
A Farewell to Vera—In Memoriam Vera Maria Conti Nogueira: 1944 - 2008
by Danilo Nogueira

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
Übersetzung deutscher Nominalkomposita aus der Fachsprache der Technik und Analyse typischer portugiesischer Entsprechungen
Katrin Herget, Holger Proschwitz
Proper Names and Translation
by Samira Mizani

  Translators Around the World
The Influence of the Market on Translating—A Tentative Study of the Market-oriented Translation in China
by Tian Chuanmao

  Scientific and Technical Translation
Mini-Guide to Translating French Documents
for English-Speaking Markets (with general tips for other language pairs and writers of EFL)

by M.L. Seren-Rosso

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Translating Sexuality: The Translation Industry and Adult Websites
by Sathya Rao

  Literary Translation
Corpus-based Study of Differences in Explicitation Between Literature Translations for Children and for Adults
by Shih Chung-ling

  Translator Education
Bibliografía comentada sobre Traducción e Interpretación para estudiantes
Pablo Muñoz Sánchez
Individual Differences in the Translation Process: Differences in the act of translation between two groups of ESL Japanese students
by Atsushi Iida
El análisis crítico de traducciones literarias en la formación de traductores
Dra. Beatriz Mª Rodríguez Rodríguez

  Book Reviews
Book Review: A Companion to Translation Studies
by Esmaeil Haddadian Moghaddam
Book Review: The Locas mujeres poems of Gabriela Mistral
reviewed by Liliana Valenzuela

  Translation Theory
Meaning: The Philosopher's Stone of the Alchemist Translator?
by Maite Aragonés Lumeras, Ph.D.

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translation and Participatory Media: Experiences from Global Voices
by Chris Salzberg
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Translation Theory

Meaning: The Philosopher's Stone of the Alchemist Translator?

by Maite Aragonés Lumeras, Ph.D.
Translator and Reviser WIPO
Prof. Máster de Traducción Médico-Sanitaria (UJI)

The intertextual links to other documents and inscription practices are part of the means by which the meanings in a text are held accountable to representations outside the text.


his paper aims at analyzing the way technical translators construct the textual meaning. The methodological framework based on genre theory and its application is used to reveal the complex relationships between the semiotic, pragmatic, rhetorical, semantic and linguistic approaches. The understanding of meaning will depend on the interaction between textual and contextual factors. There is, therefore, no autonomous and objective meaning in a text, but a convergence of parameters that constitute a crossroads of human communication for extracting a negotiated meaning. There are as many definitions of translation as views on the reality of the translation process and product; most of them are meaning-oriented, because they follow the translation tradition; translation is, then, taken as an isolated process wherein the translator has to deal with a text containing all the information required to make sense of the whole. The valuable contribution of genre studies and textual analysis stems from the importance of contextualizing texts; in this sense, meaning is not content anymore, but is relativized, negotiated, and remodeled according to external factors, that play a decisive role in the understanding of the communicative act involving actors or participants, institutions, places or ceremonies, communicative purposes and private intentions, as well as formal and social conventions. In this sense, genre perspectives lead to conclude that revisiting the definition of translation may be necessary to understand better what is meaning.


1. How Do Translators Construct Meaning?

Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric, and whenever there is rhetoric, there is meaning

Kenneth Burke

Since the Baghdad School (9th century) through the Alfonso XII School (11th century) to the modern Translation Studies, translators have tried to find a common definition of what is translation. From the literal theory, in which translation is the transposition of words in another language to the Théorie du Sens, translators have been searching universals.

Let us start from the beginning: the word translation in most Indo-European languages derives from roots in Latin and Greek. The basic notion has to be understood as transferring and metaphor, but there are differences of choices according to the language. In English, the cognitive schemata is to carry X across, whereas in German and Swedish, X is transferred in a direction away from the agent, and finally for the Latin languages, the agent leads X across. But other languages like Chinese, Japanese and Finnish use the word "to turn" or "to change state", it highlights then a new way, and transformation. Another problem is that most Indo-European languages employ "to interpret" for oral translation and make a distinction between translating—moving or turning in different directions-, and interpreting—trying to make sense from a speech.

The problem, in a sense, is that the explanation of translation shares no common ground all around the world; it shows that every culture gives a specific priority to the equivalence in the act of translating without paying attention to the role of interpretations.

Meaning is no longer a convenient notion for equivalence because translating is not part of a communicative equation, where meaning would be the philosopher's stone.
Now, what happens with meaning? In order to systematize the translating process, translators have adopted a semantic perspective to refer to what I have called X in previous lines. Their task is then to convey a meaning, i.e. the textual content. Unfortunately, there are as many understandings of meanings as visions of translation. Translators shift from referential meaning to contextual and pragmatic meaning and do not make a clear distinction between co-text (the surrounding text and all the linguistic and textual information) and context (the recurrent communicative situations, Miller 1984, Nord 1997), nor between referential meaning, communicative meaning, rhetorical tricks used to convince the reader, communicative purpose of a specific communicative situation and/or private intentions of the author.

The question puts forward a reality: meaning is neither an objective nor a universal value, but is constructed by readers (in this article translators) according to the situational context (Nord 1997); subjectivity is then the starting point of the translating process, whatever the text type (informative, exhortative, argumentative, narrative, etc.) and the text genre (patent abstract, instructions, research article, etc.).

1.1. Reading a Text

L'autonomie n'est pas autarcie, et le texte ne prend sens que pour un lecteur, dans un contexte. D'où le rejet d'un principe d'immanence qui voudrait que « tout » soit « dans » le texte.

Bénédicte Bommier-Pincemin

Translation Studies have tried to provide valid concepts to operate the communicative equation. However, communicative events are far from being as clear and determined as mathematics; communication is first of all negotiation (Ryan 2004: 220) between people in order to achieve a collective purpose and convince others that the message is worth reading and may contribute to the progress of the state of the art. If translation is understood as a specific communicative act, the privileged notions are:

  • semantic and/or rhetoric and pragmatic meaning (Lederer and Seleskovitch 1984);
  • sociocommunicative function, (Reiss and Vermeer 1991, Nord 1997);
  • semantic and/or functional equivalence.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, meaning indicates a message, intention, cause, purpose, and gives sense to purposes. It is then much closer to the New Rhetoric School (Freedman and Medway 1997, Miller 1984/1997, Bazerman 1997) than to the Paris School (Lederer and Seleskovitch (1984) because it is the expression of private intentions in a specific ceremony through collective purposes.

Following the OED, equivalence is "equality of effect" (physics). The "equivalence principle" (chemistry) is a doctrine stating that different quantities of different substances are equivalent in chemical combinations. If we keep the term equivalence, we have to admit that equality has nothing to do with linguistics, it only attains rhetorical effect. Translating is therefore not writing an identical text, but rather a dynamic process based on the combination of several parts (sentences, grammar, meaning, intentions, cultures, rhetorical moves, etc.). As for alchemistry, meaning—in analogy with the philosopher's stone—is neither universal nor objective.

Suffice to say that this traditional approach refutes the importance of the pragmatic aspect: the relationship with the text is mediated by the reading competence of the receiver, because a text is never to be taken in isolation; it takes place in a network of social communication and is intended to be received by a community for a specific purpose.

The practice of writing and reading a text is necessarily related to genre, which is not a formal mold external to text, but constitutes the text in its context. Genre therefore affects the text structure (moves) and the ways of reading (i.e. interpretations), giving valuable information on the extratextual parameters, especially the ceremony where texts happen and make sense.

1.1.1. Identifying the Ceremony

Meaning is not content; it is place and function

Anne Freadman

It has been said that meaning is constructed from a communicative framework, generally a text, which constitutes one of the translator's tools. However, text has to be defined in a situational context, where several extratextual parameters correlate (Nord 1997, Aragonés 2007b) depending on the translative approach (functionalism, Nord 1997, context, Neubert and Shreve 1992, Baker 1992, Nord 1997)

Scholars seem to agree on the fact that there is always a reason to communicate, and this should be part of the definition of meaning. In addition, ceremony is the "envelope" in which the event takes place and helps to explain variables, like:

  • communicative purpose;
  • private intentions;
  • participants (author, readers and institutions);
  • conventions.

All these factors determine the way we can perceive and understand texts specific to a ceremony, as interrelated acts produced for different reasons that should be recognized by translators. Text genres happen to be of valuable information because they associate text (static result) and context (dynamic process). Meaning is related to situation and is the crossroads of extratextual parameters.

1.2.1. Interpreting a text

Intertextual interpretation is therefore the survey of a set of possible meanings that readers attempt to disentangle from a text that is nothing more than fragments from countless other texts knitted together.


The reader can only approach the text by interpreting dynamically the role of the text in a specific situation and the relationships between the sentences and cohesion. The meaning then becomes what has been extracted from a text and makes sense to the reader according to his or her expectations and presumptions.

However, we have to keep in sight that a text is addressed to a specific community of readers; such a limitation has to be kept in mind, because the translator is not the primary addressee. Nobody will take into consideration the point of view of a translator1, because the translator is just an outsider (Berkenkotter and Huckin 1995, Aragonés 2007a), a kind of forced voyeur.

For example, a lawyer reads a patent and outlines the legal matter in order to decide if it is worth to instigating a lawsuit; a medical student reads a patent paying attention to the keywords and the way new information is organized; an engineer reads a patent to know what the concurrence has achieved and to seek information to improve the state of the art; a translator reads a patent to write a new text for an interested community of readers (generally pertaining to the same professional community as the primary receiver) in a different culture.

Hermeneutics—science that studies the interpretative act of reading—aspects are also important to construct meaning and complement the linguistic, semantic, rhetorical, pragmatic aspects that have been discussed below.

2. How to Translate a Text?

Le traducteur (et interprète) est sans cesse tenu d'adopter un point de vue, fût-il par fidélité à la formulation d'origine (sourcier) ou à l'effet de sens obtenu (cibliste).

Bénédicte Bommier-Pincemin

Scholars have stated that:

  1. equivalence is what the translator seeks; and
  2. meaning is what is inherent to the text.

The importance of meaning is related to the need for translators to count on a measuring unity used to systemize the process. Rendering the equivalence of meaning is still nowadays the method employed by a great deal of translators to do their job. The problem is that there is not a meaning, but a plurality of interpretations. Meaning is not static; it changes in time and space. A same text at the same time, but out of the ceremony, will lose part of the raison d'être and the reader will have new interpretations of the communicative purposes and private intentions.

Let's imagine we are in the South of China: lots of people wearing white dresses have grouped in the streets; they dance and shout. What does this ceremony mean? As outsiders (Berkenkotter and Huckin 1995, Aragonés 2007), we do not know the mutual knowledge shared by the congregated group and are only able to associate white color with wedding, dancing with joy, and shouts with anger or eventually songs. Our "reading" of the conventions cannot be correct, if we do not share the mutual knowledge (Berkenkotter and Huckin 1995) of ceremony and text genre in a specific community at a particular moment and place.

The solution is simple: identifying the above listed variables and contextualizing them in the culture (it can replaced by the text genre) will give us the information we need to understand the typical behavior of a burial ceremony. There is no equivalence between the separate acts, but taken altogether they may provide information on the ceremony.

The equivalent ceremony (burial) in Europe is visibly different, because the visible signs change, but the ceremony exists in Western countries and has to be recognized by the viewer if he or she wants to understand what is happening. This is one of the reasons why equivalence is, in my opinion, a dangerous notion in Translation Studies. I would rather prefer to talk about 'parallel events,' in analogy with 'parallel texts.' As far as translation is concerned, there is no equivalence but parallelism, because the values are bound to cultures, and the form—language, text, grammar, phraseology, ceremony, etc.—will change, causing thereby slight changes in communicative purposes. For example, the Spanish Cortes has no equivalent either in English, or in French or Chinese; now the choices made by translators will depend on the brief used in the Skopos Theory, and on the ceremony.

The new translated text has changed to conform with the recipients' expectations and has been interpreted according to the translator's knowledge of the contextual variables. To the ceremony, we will have to add another extratextual parameter: the author's intentions.

2.1 Unveiling private intentions

We learn to adopt social motives as ways of satisfying private intentions through rethorical action.


Before getting to the point, it can be useful to start with an explanation of the communicative act at the collective level. Text is then an instrument, which is used to negotiate information between different participants in an institutionalized context within a specific ceremony identified by the members of a community. The text will make sense and achieve its goals if it conveys new information and is accepted by readers. To make sure readers will be able to understand the significance of the communicative event, it is worth using recognizable forms2 (i.e. conventions, text genres, etc.).

At the individual level, the writer takes advantage of his or her know-how and knowledge of conventionalized ceremony to achieve his or her aims: recognition, to make sure he or she is the first one to write new information on a scientific discovery, promotion, payment, etc. His or her private intentions are for meaning, what style is for conventions: something particular and unique, neither related to ceremony, nor to genre. Respecting intentions is one of the most difficult tasks of translators, because they must remain implicit. Therefore, translators should not take for granted that what is called meaning has to be clarified.

When unveiling private intentions, the translator has a new vision on the text in its context. He or she is now ready for undertaking a translation without betraying the author. Translation becomes, then, an act of writing on behalf of the writer, protecting the author's image, as well as respecting the author's intentions according to the conventions of the text genre and ceremony chosen by the author.

3. Conclusion

I have done no more than scratch the surface of a fascinating topic here. Nonetheless, one interesting suggestion is that considering genre perspectives might help translators reconsider translation. As stated here, meaning is no longer a convenient notion for equivalence because translating is not part of a communicative equation, where meaning would be the philosopher's stone. Even if it could be said that translation is similar to alchemistry as a transformation of a raw material (text) into something new (translation), there is no grounded explanation for the speculative basis for alchemistry, nor for the objective and universal value of meaning.

From the genre perspective, extratextual parameters have to be considered before reading a text and will help the reader, especially when he or she is an outsider, to make a textual interpretation suitable for a specific translation job (defined by the translation situation) and for the future readers. There are as many interpretations as readers, as the Religious Wars confirm, this is why the translator's social image has to change.

To do so, translators—professionals and scholars—need to work on redefining translation, abandoning tricky and misleading concepts like meaning, which tend to objectify the translation process instead of admitting that any communicative act is subjective by nature.

If texts bear an objective and unambiguous meaning—whatever the situation—as Translation Studies seem to promote, what purpose do lawyers serve?


Aragonés, Maite (2007a). "Tradición, traición, traducción". Intercambios, 11(2), 16-19.

———— (2007b) "Translating Patents: Translative Strategies". Proceedings 48th ATA Conference, 327-334.

Baker, Mona (1992) In other words. A Coursebook on Translation. London: Routledge.

Bazerman, Charles (1997). "Systems of Genres and the Enactment of Social Intentions". Genre and the New Rhetoric. Freedman Aviva and Medway, Peter (eds.). London/New York: Taylor & Francis.

Berkenkotter, Carol and Huckin Thomas N. (1995) Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bommier-Pincemin, Bénédicte (1999). Diffusion ciblée automatique d'informations. Conception et mise en œuvre d'une linguistique textuelle pour la caractérisation des destinataires et des documents. http://www.revue-texto.net/Inedits/Pincemin/Pincemin-these.html.

Freedman, Aviva and Medway, Peter (eds.) (1997). Genre and the New Rhetoric. London/New York: Taylor & Francis.

Miller, Carolyn R. (1984). "Genre as Social Action". Quaterly Journal of Speech, 70. 151-167.

Neubert, Albrecht and Shreve, Gregory M. (1992) Translation as Text. Kent/Ohio/London: The Kent State University Press.

Nord (1997) "A Functional Typology of Translations". Genre and the New Rhetoric. Freedman Aviva and Medway, Peter (eds.). London/New York: Taylor & Francis.

Reiss, Katarina and Vermeer, Hans J. (1991). "Fundamentos para una teoría funcional de la traducción". Madrid: Akal.

Ryan, David (2004) "The pragmatic theory of meaning: negotiation by stealth". Language Sciences 26, 217-229.

Seleskovitch, Danica and Lederer, Marianne (1984) Interpréter pour traduire. Col. Traductologie, 1, Paris: Didier Érudition.

Oxford English Dictionary, http://dictionary.oed.com.