Indeterminacy of translation and FIML

I betray my poor education by admitting that I had never heard of W. V. Quine’s “indeterminacy of translation” until last week. My ignorance is especially egregious as I have worked as a professional translator for many years.

Maybe I had heard about it but had forgotten. I am being self-reflective because FIML practice is deeply, fundamentally concerned with the “indeterminacy” of translating one person’s thoughts into another person’s head.

Quine’s thesis is not just about translating from one language to another, though there is that. It is much more about the fundamental impossibility of determining what anything means well enough to “translate” it into another context, a next sentence, into another person’s mind, or even “translating” your own speech from the past into the context of your mind today.

If I had known about Quine, I probably never would have thought of FIML because his ideas and the slews of papers written on “indeterminacy of translation” surely would have made me believe that the subject had been worked through.

As it was, I have plodded along in a delightful state of ignorance and, due to that, maybe added something practical to the subject.

In the first place, I wholeheartedly believe that speech is filled with indeterminacy, which I have generally called ambiguity or uncertainty. In the second place, I have confined my FIML-related investigations mainly to interpersonal speech between partners who care about each other. I see no solution to the more general problem of indeterminacy within groups, subcultures, or linguistic communities. Until brain scans get much better, large groups will be forced to resort to hierarchical “determinacy” to exist or function at all.

For individuals, though, there is much we can do. FIML practice does not remove all “indeterminacy.” Rather, it removes much more than most people are accustomed to. My guess is FIML communication provides a level of detail and resolution that is an order of magnitude better than non-FIML.

FIML does not fix everything—and philosophical or “artistic” differences between partners are still possible—but it does fix a great deal. By clearing up interpersonal micro-indeterminacy again and again, FIML practice frees partners from the inevitable macro-problems that ambiguity causes.

Moreover, this freedom, in turn, frees partners from a great deal of subconscious adhesion to the hierarchical “determinacy” of whichever culture they are part of. Rather than trapping themselves in a state of helpless acceptance of predefined hierarchical “meaning,” FIML partners have the capacity to sort through existential semiotics and make of them what they will with far less “indeterminacy,” or ambiguity, than had been possible without FIML practice.

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