Analyzing Quine’s Theory of the Indeterminacy of Translation

W.V.O Quine has favored contextual translation in his book “Word and Object” to the extent that it renders the importance of accuracy in translation almost meaningless. According to Quine’s viewpoint, while translating a manual from any language into English, all alternative translations of the same manual would be correct as long as they fit the speech patterns of the native speakers of that language. The readers might prefer one translation over the other but it has nothing to do with the prowess or skill of the translator. This preference is personal according to Quine, depending on the words/phrases striking the fancy of a reader or because the interpretation is close to one’s own view of the world.

Quine explains his theory as follows:

Two translators might develop independent manuals of translation, both of them compatible with all speech behavior, and yet one manual would offer translations that the other translator would reject. My position was that either manual could be useful, but as to which was right and which  wrong, there was no fact of the matter.”

If we accept Quine’s theory, we should not be judging or comparing the work done by two different translation services or translators. Language and its translation  is all about interpretation and Quine’s theory is proved useful by the fact that literal translation fails to convey any meaning. A good translation is always the closest natural equivalent  of the original document. CNE strives to provide the readers with the exact meaning of the document as was intended in the source language, keeping the expression natural for the native speakers, again for the purpose of comprehension.

In the present world, due to the growing need of intercultural communication  and the world becoming a global market, more translators are required. Translation service companies recruit  German translators, French translators, Italian translators, Chinese and Korean translators, Arabic translators, Portuguese translators, Polish and Spanish translators. If we were to believe the theory of Quine, which I completely agree with, all translators are able and skilled. As long as the translator has a command on the target language,  the interpretations could vary. There is no such thing as a good translator and a bad translator. This is a wrong perception which the translation service companies should not support. All translators are competent and comparisons between the translated manuals are pointless.

Quine gives his theory the name of “Indeterminacy of Translation” whereby translation always requires some background information which might not be available in the original text which is to be translated. Here the translator has to work through some assumptions according to his own beliefs and experiences which might vary from person to person. This results in different interpretations by different translators. According to Quine, only observation sentences could be translated accurately whereas there is little room for variation in the translation of standing sentences. Quine thinks that there is a room for indeterminacy in observation sentences even, meaning there are different ways to report the same observation.

This demonstrates that translation at times is indeterminate. But not all linguists tend to agree with Quine. It only clarifies the point that there is no such thing as a perfect or imperfect translation. Translation is an arduous job, and there could be more than one possible translation of the same document.