Meaning Revisited

So how do we make sense of words, sentences and texts? How are we able to decipher discourse and take part in conversation? What are the required elements of meaning and how are they glued together?

Words usually have both a conceptual meaning (their literal definition in a dictionary, the reference they point to in the real world), and an associative meaning (subjective connotation we assign to them). To understand an utterance, we need linguistic context (or co-text), situational context, and physical context about what is being said by whom, where, in relation to what, and under which circumstances. We also absolutely need some kind of background knowledge (preferably common to the participants) about the world/actions/everyday experiences.

Some texts are more “culturally-charged” than others. In translation, the linguist faces the daunting task of not only replacing the source word with its correct target equivalent from a dictionary (as we have seen, meaning goes beyond the literal), but also that of helping the target audience interpret what is being said in a “thought for thought” way which remains valid in their own culture and understanding.

What is required, then, for a good translation? Well, language competence (and performance!) for one. But above and beyond that, what sets a good translation apart from a bad one is the ability to conduct profound discourse analysis. An in-depth understanding of the underlying schemata and scripts (i.e. conventional knowledge structures of the speakers/readers) in both the source and the target culture.

Understanding a text and conveying the intended message properly requires both language structures and knowledge structures. And this is where intercultural expertise really pays off. Because understanding does not automatically flow from the words on the page, it comes from the interpretations we create in our minds of that which we are reading. How is a text structured, what are its conventions, stylistic elements and background assumptions? And how can these be transferred to the target language in a way that will elicit the same response (or a very similar one) in our target readers? What amount of variation is necessary?

For that and more, you have a seasoned linguist and experienced intercultural communication professional at your disposal. Right here.


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