Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Unpacking Text, Context and Translation


This is a post that follows on from my previous post about Unpackaging ideas. The two points that I would like to make are:
  1. Unpacking ideas is done via context, the context of the text, the author(s) and your context
  2. Unpacking ideas that have been translated add to them the context of the translator(s)

When studying a text, it is very important to understand the context of that text. A word only has a specific meaning in relation to the rest of the sentence, paragraph or text. The word by itself can have multiple meanings. Changing context of a meaning is often a means to generate humour.

For example, an American and an English farmer are talking about driving around their fields. The English farmer says:

“I get in my car, drive 5 minutes and reach the end of my field.”

The American farmer says:

“That's nothing! I get in my car, drive along my field… And drive… And drive some more. Eventually after an hour I get to the end of my field”.

To which the English farmer replies:

“I used to have a car like that too!”

My apologies in advance for explaining the joke but… you might at first think that the American farmer is describing how large his field it, that it takes an hour to get from one end to the other. The English farmer misunderstands and thinks that the car is just really rubbish, that it does a 5 minute journey in 1 hour.

The important things to take away from this example are two things:

  1. The words field, car, American, English, farmer all make sense within the context, in a different context they could have a very different meaning.
  2. You interpreted what the text was describing in a specific way.

There is also a third context in the joke that of the joke’s author.

As explained in The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You're Not by John Vorhaus, humour relies on Truth and Pain. If you cannot comprehend the truth of a situation or the source of pain, then you are unlikely to find the joke funny. Next time you encounter a joke that you don’t laugh at, consider what part of the truth or pain that the joke derives from is something that you do not agree with.

Anyway, getting back to the main topic. The important thing when studying a text is to (1) consider the context of the text, (2) consider the context of the author(s) and (3) consider yourself.

Ask these questions:
  1. What age did the author(s) live in? What were their circumstances? What influenced their ways of thinking? What political, religious, etc ideologies did they ascribe to and which might they have opposed?
  2. Now ask the same question as in 1. Above but apply it to yourself.

By being able to take a step back and look at the context of the text, author and your self – you can get a better understanding of what messages the text is trying to convey.

If on the other hand you ignore one or more of these contexts, you run the risk of misinterpreting the messages within the text and in the worst case scenario coming to a conclusion that is either opposite to the intended or one that is nonsensical.

Final thought… Having considered the argument above about taking note of the context of a text, the author(s) and the reader (i.e. you)… What do you think are the impacts of this on the context when you read a translated text?