What is meaning?

The crux of every successful translation and human communication is how to accurately and effectively convey meaning.

When the meaning intended by the speaker or by the producer of the text is not understood or interpreted correctly by the recipient of the message, communication breaks down and can even lead to conflict.

But how is meaning constructed? According to German linguist Christian Winkler, each utterance rests upon three pillars:

  • what is being said
  • how it is being said
  • how it is being perceived, or interpreted, by the addressee (or what kind of signal it generates)

This is particularly crucial in translation as a form of intercultural communication, where the audiences often hail from two very different cultures, and thus assign meaning (or sense) differently.

But what is the exact process by which communication literally “makes sense”? According to Winkler, there are two ways we can look at words: as parts of a language (descriptive and abstract) and as parts of speech (meaningful and practical).

Winkler distinguishes between “signification” (Bedeutung) – the factual dictionary definition of a word, “position” or associative meaning (Meinung) – the subjective expression of what the speaker feels, believes and aims to convey, and “sense” (Sinn) – the objective content of a statement, the relationship between what was being expressed and what was being meant.

In brief, meaning erupts out of a powerful combination between the factual definitions of individual words, their subjective connotation, the voice or style, the context, and the situation. Context is both linguistic and situative, and it requires background knowledge.

To construct “sense” in intercultural communication, to convey the message as close to its initial meaning as possible, and to make sure it is understood correctly, one has to keep in mind that different connotations (interpretations) may be ascribed to a certain tone, voice, gesture, style, context or situation. The translator has to be aware of the underlying assumptions (in Trompenaars’ words, the implicit core of basic assumptions of a culture) and of the different norms and values in both cultures, in order to recreate the right meaning and to help it make sense accordingly. Simply looking words up in a dictionary is not enough.

Communication is more than the sum of certain parts of language. It needs to look at words as parts of speech, at their functions and semantic roles in the sentence, and at pragmatics. It needs to take into consideration intended meaning, paraverbal aspects, and meta-communication, and it requires knowledge and understanding of the cultural context at both the origin and the destination.

Good intercultural communication requires an ability to “walk in the other person’s shoes”, and to grasp their position with regard to various situations, as well as their probable strategies, tactics and solutions in response to various problems. These things are deeply engrained in a person’s “lense” or “filter”, sometimes unawares, through socialization from a very early age.

 

 

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