In defence of fuzziness

Nike K. Pokorn

Abstract

In Translation Studies the definitions of the concepts native speaker and mother tongue have been uncritically adopted from linguistics and are regarded as defined and clarified as far as their meaning is concerned, despite the fact that neither linguistics nor translation theory can offer an objective and water-tight definition of the terms. A similar desire for univocal terms can also be detected in the claims for the need of one, universally accepted term for the same phenomenon where various competing terms already exist and are in use.

Although some linguists have already expressed their doubts in the justification of some of the fundamental linguistic concepts, as Rajogopalan has observed, a lot of them are still happy working with such discreet entities thus making linguistics perhaps the most “19th century” of the academic disciplines taught in universities today. Unfortunately, this could also be stated for some currents in Translation Studies, despite the fact that translation research can and should provide the most suitable field where such axiomatic truths are challenged. The article questions this desire for the univocal and argues that it is high time we all learn to live with more fuzzy definitions.

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Table of contents

“No non-native speaker is ever going to tell me how to call something in English”—this comment came up in a recent discussion about certain terminological issues concerning English translations of geographical names used for different parts of Slovenia. The conversation was initiated with an aim of standardising the terminology used in a translation course taught by different teachers. It seemed a trivial enough problem at first: Slovenia as a country is divided in several regional administrative units, some of which have retained in Slovene the names of often much larger mediaeval or Austro-Hungarian districts (e.g. ‘Štajerska’, ‘Koroška’, [ p. 328 ]etc.). Although there exist English translations for some of those old terms (e.g. ‘Štajerska’ corresponds to ‘Styria’), the tendency in Slovenia is not to use them when referring to contemporary administrative units to avoid confusion with the older terms which denoted much larger territories (e.g. the Austro-Hungarian Styria is nowadays divided between Slovenia and Austria), and to use Slovene terms instead (e.g. ‘the Štajerska region’). The above-mentioned colleague, who is a native speaker of English, was familiar with all the arguments found in theoretical works on Slovene toponyms in English, but nevertheless insisted on using the old term ‘Styria’ for the contemporary Slovene administrative unit, her final argument being that if opinions differ she is going to “reserve the right to [her] own preferences as an educated native speaker”.

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