Translating Evaluative Discourse: the Semantics of Thick and Thin Concepts

Dissertation, York University (2007)
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According to the philosophical tradition, translation is successful when one has substituted words and sentences from one language with those from another by cross-linguistic synonymy. Moreover, according to the orthodox view, the meaning of expressions and sentences of languages are determined by their basic or systematic role in a language. This makes translating normative and evaluative discourse puzzling for two reasons. First, as languages are syntactically and semantically different because of their peculiar cultural and historical influences, and as values and norms differ across cultures, it is unlikely that languages will have synonymous evaluative and normative expressions. If translation is only successful by cross-linguistic synonymy, it would seem that we will not be able to translate the value theoretic claims of persons from radically different cultures. But it is with such persons that dialogue on evaluative matters is imperative, to resolve ethical and axiological differences that could be the root of conflict. Second, as the orthodox account of meaning renders it linguistically relative, it is unlikely that expressions across languages will be cross-linguistically synonymous. Thus, on the Orthodox account of translation, translation is indeterminate (as W.V.O. Quine has argued) or impossible (as Jacques Derrida has argued). In this dissertation I argue for a novel theory of meaning and translation based on innovations in the translation studies literature and my prior work in cross cultural research, which I call Text-Type Semantics or TTS. TTS explains how translation is successful while affirming radical cultural and linguistic diversity. It treats disciplinary concerns as the neutral criteria to calibrate translation. On the basis of TTS I argue that we need what I call the “Quasi-Indexical” account of thick and thin concepts (or QI) to translate normative and evaluative discourse. I argue that QI and TTS succeed where competing accounts in the moral semantics literature (such as Non-Analytic Naturalism and Expressivism) fail. The argument also shows that the relativization of truth (in philosophy and beyond) to languages and cultures is mistaken.

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Shyam Ranganathan
York University


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