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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ernie Lepore on the Heresy of Paraphrase

Ernie Lepore gave a super-interesting talk at SLU Thursday. The talk was about the heresy of translation. According to the heresy, when a poem is translated, something gets lost in translation. As Lepore pointed out, there seems to be a simple refutation of the heresy (I am quoting from the handout):

Suppose someone utters the sentence S in a poem. If S is meaningful, then it expresses a thought or an idea or a proposition or whatever -- call what it expresses p. Why couldn't another sentence S' be introduced to express p, regardless of whether it occurs in a poem or in a patch of prose?
The idea is this. We ought to be able to express the content of a poem in a different language. Just translate the poem word for word, and you should be able to preserve the content. Yet it surely seems that something got lost along the way. Lepore thinks that what gets lost is what he calls 'the vehicle of articulation'. To see the difference between an expression and a vehicle of articulation, consider the following sentences (from Lepore):

(1) 'red' is an English word

(2) 'red' is one word in English, another in Danish, and none in Italian

In (1) 'red' is an English word, in (2) it is a vehicle of articulation which expresses a color word in English, a past tensed verb in Danish, etc. The vehicle of articulation is different from the expression. Vehicles articulate expressions. Expressions have semantic values, vehicles don't.

Now, some expressions can only be expressed with one vehicle. Quotation expressions, for example, cannot pick out different things. Unless you use a name (e.g. 'Jason') to refer to 'Quine', 'Quine' can only be expressed with "Quine". "Quine" carries the semantic value with it. That is, the thing we quote is contained in the quotation expression. According to Lepore, quoted expressions create hyperintensional contexts. Consider, for instance:

(3) 'bachelor' is the first word in 'bachelors are unmarried men'

(4) 'unmarried man' is the first word in 'bachelors are unmarried men'

Even though 'bachelor' and 'unmarried man' are synonyms, substitution is illegitimate in a quotation context. According to Lepore, poetry is in important ways similar to quoted expressions. If you substitute a synonym for a word in a poem, something may get lost. Like quoted expressions, poems create hyperintensional contexts. Substitution into the context of a poem is illegitimate. Lepore concluded that the heresy got things exactly right. Some poetry is not simply about the content but is about the vehicle of articulation. For this reason, poetry can only be translated with great difficulty, and something usually gets lost.


Shawn said...

Does Lepore motivate the idea that one should approach poetry with the idea that it is the truth-conditional/propositional content (if any) of a poem that is what is most important? On the face of it, that idea seems like a little bit of a straw man. One of the basic aspects of reading poetry is the meter and rhyme. It seems like one could make a direct appeal to those (intensional) aspects of the poetry without going through the machinery of quotation and substitution. His argument seems fine, but I'm sort of confused about what crowd he is trying to convince.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Shawn
I think Lepore said he once thought the argument against the heresy was sound. However, it doesn't really matter, for what's interesting is not that the heresy is correct but rather that the heresy is correct because poems create hyperintensional contexts. It is one thing to claim that the heresy is correct and quite another to explain why it is correct.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite poems is "The Kingfishers" by Charles Olson. I think that when this poem is translated something (correction: a lot) should definitely be lost in translation.