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Roman Jakobson


Roman Jakobson was a Russian–American linguist and literary theorist. He was born
in Russia on 11 October 1896 to a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, the industrialist Osip
Jakobson and chemist Anna Volpert Jakobson. He studied in the Lazarev Institute of Oriental
Languages and then in the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University, where he
also was one of the leaders of Moscow Linguistic Circle. In 1920 he moved to Prague where
he completed his PhD. He developed his career as a lecturer in Denmark and New York.

Jakobson has been closely associated not only with formalism but also linguistics,
anthropology and psychoanalysis. He is known as being the founder of the Prague Linguistic
Circle. He is also known to have coined the term Structural Linguistics. He was influenced by
the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jakobson developed, with Nikolai Trubetzkoy, techniques
for the analysis of sound systems in languages. He became a pioneering figure in the
adaptation of structural analysis to disciplines beyond linguistics,
including anthropology and literary theory. He also made the acquaintance of many American
linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield.

His first works are analysis in line with Russian Formalists. A linguistic work must be
analyzed in terms of its own morphological properties. He focused on poetry (Russian-Checz)
and showed tendency towards structuralism. Also he had great contribution in phonology.

Jakobson's three principal ideas in linguistics play a major role in the field to this day.
These are linguistic typology, markedness and linguistic universals. He is famous as a co-
author of structural analysis of language and a creator of dichotomous scale. Jakobson also
initiated a complex research on the relation between poetry and language.
In his "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation" article;

Roman Jakobson famously disproves Bertrand Russell’s argument that one must know a
word’s reference in order to know its meaning. Bertrand Russell states "no one can
understand the word 'cheese' unless he has a nonlinguistic acquaintance with cheese."
However, Jakobson claims that even though you do not know or have not acquainted with the
object or the signified in real life, it is possible to understand what is signified by a word. We,
as people, have the ability to know and understand words without having to first see their
reference. He gives the example of ambrosia and nectar which one can read in Greek myth.
He sustains that any one from a cheese-less culture will understand ‘cheese’ if he is aware of
the fact that it means ‘food made of pressed curds’. He goes on by referring the words
ambrosia and nectar that we never consumed them but we know in what contexts they are
used. Jakobson states that the meaning of any word is a linguistic feature and a semiotic fact.
He also stresses the importance of the fact that, when the verbal code is excluded, a meaning
of a word cannot be found only on the basis of its linguistic acquaintance. Hence the meaning
itself belongs to the signifier not to the signified. ( Agata Sławińska)

Jakobson describes three kinds of translation:

 Intra-lingual translation, or ‘rewording’: an interpretation of verbal signs by means

of other signs within the same language’; (if we rephrase, summarize or rewrite a text
in the same language, we would use Intra-lingual translation).

 Inter-lingual translation, or ‘translation proper’: an interpretation of verbal signs

by means of some other languages; when you make a translation of a text from a
language to another one, it is the Inter-lingual translation

 Inter-semiotic translation or ‘transmutation’: an interpretation of verbal signs by

means of signs of non-verbal sign systems. You would use Inter-semiotic translation
when you make translation of a written text having a verbal signs system into a
language having non-verbal signs system, for example, music, gesture, etc.

After classifying the types of translation, Jakobson discusses that there is a problem of
equivalence in these three translation methods as some information can be difficult to render
when a target language has different grammatical categories from the source one. However,
he adds that all cognitive experiences can be expressed in language and while translating
whenever there is a lack or ‘deficiency’ of words, ‘loan words’, ‘neologisms’ and
‘circumlocutions’ can be used to fill in this lack.

He gives the example of ‘cheese’ in English that is not identical to the Russian syr or
to the Spanish queso and to the German Käse, etc. since the Russian ‘code-unit’ does not
include the concept of cottage cheese. In Russian, that would be tvarok and not syr. While one
might quibble that the English cheese only really covers the realm of cottage cheese by the
addition of the pre-modifier cottage, the general principle of inter-linguistic difference
between terms and semantic fields is established (Munday, 2008, 37).

For the message to be ‘equivalent’ in source text and target text, the code-units will be
different since they belong to two different sign systems (languages) which partition reality
differently.(ex:cheese, syr)

Even what for many western languages is a basic relational concept such as be
(English), être (French) and sein (German) is broken down in Spanish to ser and estar, while
Russian does not use such a verb explicitly in the present tense. These examples illustrate
differences between languages, but they are still concepts that can be clarified in inter-

In the final fragment of his article, the author’s focus is put on the literary translation
in Slavic languages, especially poetry, and again he points to the complicated grammatical
categories. According to Jakobson the choice of grammatical categories should be different
for every language so it is easier to translate problematic utterances. The analysis of Russian
and English also reveals that the assumption about phenomena of untranslatability of some
words in literary texts is true. The only existing way of rendering poetry is creative
transposition. Only poetry – where form expresses sense, where phonemic similarity is sensed
as semantic relationship – is considered ‘untranslatable’ by Jakobson and requires ‘creative
transposition’ (Munday, 2008, 38).

As a conclusion, I find the article very interesting and useful. The author mentions the
relationship between linguistics and translation, and also points out the importance of a verbal
code. The examples are really clear to explain the topic. Moreover, Jakobson was a good
literary theorist so he could give useful information about linguistics in the context of
translating literary forms, as for example poetry.

Munday, J. (2008). Introcuding Translation Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Rıfat, M. (2012). Çeviri Seçkisi II - Çeviri(bilim) Nedir?. Sel Yayıncilik. İstanbul. pg:61-66.

Sławińska, A.

Venuti, L (ed) (2000). The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York. Routledge.