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Aditya Kumar Panda

Aditya Kumar Panda – ‘Determinants of Translation’

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Translation, as a phenomenon, has its own elements of becoming. These elements decide the structure of a translation. Determining the structure of a translation includes many factors. In this paper, I would like to highlight four factors which determine the structure of a translation; these factors are words, source, context and speaker.

Do we translate individual words or isolated sentences? The question is about what we translate when we translate words. The existence of words is not merely the existence of words. Words exist with the worlds. Therefore, when we translate words, we translate the words in the worlds. The world brings a context in which the words occur. I think, we don’t translate words, we translate words in contexts, and we translate sentences in contexts. What do we mean by context?  Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OUP, 2015) defines the context as 1) the situation in which something happens and that helps you to understand it, 2) the words that come just before and after a word, phrase or statement and help you to understand its meaning. The first definition helps us understand the word “context” better. We use words in sentences in the situation in which we exist. In reality, we don’t speak words but sentences that carry words. The sentences, I am writing about do have contexts of occurrences and these sentences are not possible without words. While translating something, a translator translates words and sentences, words in sentences, sentences, sentences in contexts. All these steps are mutually inclusive and there is no hard and fast rule that these steps are followed diagonally or horizontally. The context is the element in translation that determines meaning and a source determines the context. A source can be a speaker, a society or an institution or an author or anything that is relevant to decide the context.

Words are not solid objects that have material existence but conventionally as it has been mentioned that words can be made as the referents for the solid objects. The things that don’t have solid existence and the things that don’t have any source to decipher, to determine are prone to many interpretations like the word ‘God’. Either of these conditions seems to be responsible for interpreting something in more than one way. Words may refer to solid objects like light, acid, iron, book etc. Such words are subject to definite translation whereas words like love, devotion, life are subject to indefinite translation.

All the words are subject to many interpretations until a reference for each of the words is fixed by an established source (individual or a group or a society or an institution). This fixity is questioned by the Poststructuralists because it is arbitrary. There is no logic behind the fixity of a reference for a word by a source and such fixity of reference may change in time and space and from a source to another. There comes a conflict when a source differs from another in the process of fixing the reference or when there is no source. Such conflict and the plurality of interpretation in translation may cause fatal consequences. History could witness many tragic incidents due to the plurality of interpretation in translation. One can cite many examples from the past to prove that a mistranslation or an ambiguous translation is disastrous particularly if it is concerned with the action follows translation. The effect of mistranslation differs from domain to domain. If the domain is political or legal or medical, the effect of action is more whereas the effect of action is less in the domain of literature. In other words, translation in applied domains does have more effect and affect than the theoretical domains. Mistranslation in a literary text may not have a disastrous effect but mistranslation in a letter, in a newspaper, legal or medical documents may cause an atom bomb to fall. One such example is the Japanese word, “mokusatsu” which caused the dropping of atom bomb on Hiroshima. At the time of the World War-II, Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki said mokusatsu in a reply against the Potsdam declaration. This Japanese word has more than one meaning: take no notice of; treat (anything) with silent contempt; ignore [by keeping silence]; remain in a wise and masterly inactivity. International news agencies spread the translation of Suzuki’s mokusatsu as “not worthy of comment”. US took this translation as something authoritative and something as the Japanese authority’s denial of the declaration and this caused the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The meaning of this word was in Suzuki’s mind. He knew what he had meant. But the translator meant something else. No doubt, the word is ambiguous. What the media interpreted is one of the meanings but it is not the meaning what Suzuki meant for. Translation of the Japanese word, “mokusatsu” and the action followed up could be well-justified with the American analytical philosopher W V Quine’s indeterminacy of reference. When Quine says that the meaning is in speaker’s mind, he is right. If the speaker is not there, then it will get multiple meanings. A source reduces the ambiguity which prevails in a communication. A written word can have more than one meaning. No one knows the definite meaning of a written word from a source, if the source is not there. Quine speaks about two kinds of sentences: one is occasion sentences and second one is standing sentences. The degree of mistranslation is less in case of the standing sentences whereas it is more in case of the occasion sentence like that of Prime Minister Suzuki. Standing sentences refer to the general condition or the truth and their contexts don’t differ much whereas it is difficult to know the meaning of an occasion sentence as it is determined by the stimulation that is in speaker’s mind. When there is no direct connection to the stimuli of an uttered sentence, it is difficult to translate the same. One can translate it by taking any possible stimulus meaning into account. This is why occasion sentences depend on the intuition which is difficult to be deciphered. In this context, he states that translation is indeterminate. A speaker or a writer stabilizes the meaning. Absence of a speaker or writer or author delimits the meaning. This is why many textual items (of which there is no author or the author is no more) are interpreted in more than one ways. There was no apple tree in the Garden of Eden. There was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In original Hebrew version of the Bible, there was not mentioned about apple but about a fruit. In the Latin Bible, it is Pomum which means any fruit, not necessarily apple. Many translators and scholars took this fruit as apple; some others thought about it as pomegranate, some others took it as grapes. John Milton established the fruit as an apple. Islamic tradition understands the fruit as fig or olive. Before Milton, many scholars treated the fruit as the apple fruit. There is no definite answer to it as the author is not there.

A source word may have more than one equivalent in a target language. The word, ‘duty’ has dharma, karma, kartabya as its equivalents in Odia and in many other Indian languages. There has been an established tradition of using each of these equivalents in their respective contexts. This established tradition prioritizes the possible equivalents as the primary or the secondary one. In Odia, it is the equivalent, kartabya which is treated as the primary equivalent for the English word ‘duty’. If one translates ‘dharma’ into English, the primary equivalent may be the equivalent word ‘religion’ and the equivalent word ‘duty’ will come as the secondary one. Such prioritizing is the work of the context. If the word, ‘bank’ has more than one meaning, it depends on the context to decide the one referred meaning. One doesn’t use all the meanings of the word ‘bank’ at a time, likewise one does not use all the equivalent target words at a time unless it is for the compilation of a dictionary. Meaning is always context-bound. When I say something, it doesn’t mean anything unless I mean something. In other words, when I say something to be meaningful, I give a context to it. If I don’t give a context to whatever I say, it will be meaningless. So it is the context to decide whether one is to mean the bank of a river or a financial institution or a store of something. And the source is an integral part of the context that decides the meaning. In other words, meaning in the contexts is decided by a source. If a context is interpreted devoid of a source, it is subject to differ from the meaning that is meant by a source while producing the context. Suzuki’s word ‘mokusatsu’ and its interpretation by media illustrate this point.

A context is always a mutually agreed and sharing phenomenon that has been established by a society. We speak in a context that others can understand through acquired understanding conventionally. A context is only to “others”. From its creation, it is for others. A context in translation is for “the other of others”. It is to facilitate meaningful communication among the individuals in a society and a context in translation is to facilitate the same in another society. A context (limits) controls a language. If I am looking at a table, I can say that I am looking at a table, I can’t say that I am looking at a dog or a cat. By seeing a table, if I say that I am looking at a dog or a cat, I have also a context. By saying that a context controls a language, I mean that the language that we use to speak or to write is always a controlled phenomenon although the language is unlimited.

A native speaker or a translator does not necessarily know everything of a language that he/she speaks or translates to. There are words in a language that the speaker or the translator might not have come across. This necessacitates the availability of various domains of knowledge nomenclature and of the various people who are skilled in their respective domains.

If I say that a context is a situation either in a real or in an imaginary life, I might be adding to the definition of context mentioned above. By saying this, I am bringing two indispensable elements to decide the meaning in translation. One is ‘the source’, and the other one is ‘the context’. We are aware of the contexts which are possible in our real life and in our imaginary life. Out of these two, it is the source element which has to decide the meaning in both the contexts. The famous quoted sentence, colorless green ideas sleep furiously, is illogical in real life context, but it is a possibility in imaginary life context. Disapproval of such statement could be seen more from the scientific point of view, but it could well be justified in literature that takes much stuff from our imagination.

It is a difficult task for a translator to choose a meaning out of many meanings as that of mokusatsu. Here while choosing a meaning; a translator cannot keep herself or himself away from his or her own subjective notion. When someone speaks or writes, he/she chooses words to speak or write. Such choosing or selection is inevitable in the act of translation. If the selected words in translation don’t get approved by the target speakers or by other translators, conflict arises. Two points come to mind here, one is the words traditionally the target authority has been selecting and approving; the other one is disagreeing with this and providing other words. This happens because sometimes the traditionally approving authority approves something that is linguistically or socioculturally incorrect and the translator who disagrees with this and provides linguistically and socioculturally correct word. Etinne Dolet’s addition of rien du tout (nothing at all) to a passage in the translation of Plato’s dialogues burned his life in the hand of Roman Catholic Church. This execution by an authority was due to his disbelief in immortality which the added phrase illustrated to the authority. Dr Bakhtiar’s translation of the Quran illustrates the point quite critically. Sometimes, the traditionally approving authority is right in this respect and the other is not. Linguistic and sociocultural correctness of a translation is subject to the forces of an authority who is in power. Such power has its own agenda. It may approve a blind belief or it may disapprove a scientific point or vice versa. If one thinks about a translation excluding this authorial power, it looks different, it means different. More than the source and contexts of a word or words or text, it is the authorial power which may decide the words, the meaning and the worlds. This determiner may overpower other determiners of translation in a non-democratic set up. The target readers or users have the power to disapprove an authorial imposition under a democracy.  This is why the word, ‘harijan’ has been replaced with other terms. This is why a blind is not called ‘blind’ officially, he/she is considered as ‘visually impaired’ these days. Language is highly potential to influence people. Use of words determines who the speaker is. Language and mind are interrelated. They reciprocally create a world of representation which has a role in the society. In India, the people who are physically handicapped are given a new name that is ‘divyanga’means having divine organs. The target user is another determiner of a translation. It is the target user who distributes and popularizes the meaning, words and the texts. A translation becomes alive when it goes to the hands of a user. Now comes the factor of sustainability of a translation. A translation does not sustain, unless it is used again and again with dynamic readership.

Selection of words in translation differs as per the space it occurs in a translated text. Translating the title of a book in a target language differs from translating the content in the same. Some people prefer to translate the title; some people go for retaining it in the target text.

In an act of communication, there are there elements which can subject to mistranslation: the speaker, the channel, and the hearer. Speaker and hearer are subjective and are essential to determine the meaning. The hearer is the deciding factor of a successful communication. The hearer is prone to mistranslation. The hearer may misinterpret the speaker’s meaning.

When we think about translating words, we think about an already established world. Translation does not occur in vacuum. It happens provided that there is an established source. An established source is a necessary condition that is a part of what we define as translation. An established source means an established language with an established writing system, a society with its various institutions.


The form and function of a translation could be determined, not by one factor but by factors. Translation is a heterogeneous entity and its determination is not attentive to one of the factors of its becoming, although sometimes there may be one dominant factor which determines the form of a translation. This is why the focus of the scholars of translation has been shifting from word as the deciding element of a translation to target user and so on.


  • Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, OUP, 2015
  • Craig, William. The Fall of Japan, Dial, 1967
  • Quine, W.V. Word and Object, MIT Press, 1960



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