Brian Harris, review of Alexander Lyudskanov’s book in Italian on unprofessionaltranslation

Ludskanov in Italian


Alexander Ludskanov and Natural Translation
The fundamental tenet of the Natural Translation (NT) Hypothesis is that all bilinguals can translate. The first person to state that explicitly was the brilliant Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Ludskanov (A.L.) in 1967. He did it in a book in Bulgarian; the literal translation of its title would be Human and Machine Translation. He translated the book into French himself in 1969, and what he wrote was this:
Grâce à une certaine intuition et à une certaine habitude, chaque sujet bilingue traduit d’une manière ou d’une autre. Par conséquent, la science de la TO [traduction humaine] n’avait pas à s’occuper de la question comment apprendre à l’homme à traduire, mais de la question comment lui apprendre à agir d’une manière ou d’une autre pour obtenir des résultats correspondant à certains critères acceptés a priori.
Here’s my English translation:
By intuition and habit, all bilingual people can translate in some way or other. Consequently the fundamental question for the study of human translation is not how to teach people to translate, but how to teach them to behave in a way that will produce results conforming to certain well-established, accepted criteria.
He couldn’t have said it better; but does that mean he was an early proponent of research on NT? Not at all. First, if you re-read his second sentence, you’ll see that what he recommends is not the study of the spontaneous phenomenon, but of how natural translators can be trained to translate according to the norms of their society. Secondly, the passage I’ve quoted only occurs in a footnote. He certainly knew what he was saying, but the fact that he didn’t put it in the body of his text means, IMHO, that like several other early discoverers of NT, he didn’t appreciate its full significance.

Never mind. He clearly saw that NT exists and that it’s universal.

A.L. impressed everyone who heard him lecture by the convincing clarity of his arguments – his first degree was in law. Alas, he died in 1976 at only fifty. My wife and I knew him and his family personally, and their little old-world house in Sofia. It was thanks to him that we and his other friends of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics were able to slip behind the Iron Curtain and visit Bulgaria (Sofia, Varna, the Black Sea coast) in those far-off days of the Communist regime. We were surprised by the high level of translation activities and of intellectual life in what most people in the West thought of as a Balkan backwater. This was partly due to the Bulgarians’ proximity to the linguists and scientists of the Soviet Union: A.L. himself had studied in Moscow. The Bulgarian government aped the Soviets, and A.L. received official support for his machine translation project because MT research was in vogue in the USSR. He was no supporter of the regime, but he’d managed to find a refuge in the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Science because, as he explained to me, “Mathematics is the only branch of learning that they haven’t found a way to politicize.”

There are a number of other interesting ideas in his book, but they aren’t directly relevant to this blog. What does it mean, however, to say that he was a semiotician? Semoticians study all kinds of sign systems (N.B. not just signs, but systems of signs). For them, languages are one kind of sign system, and there are others just as important. What would be such another? The genetic code, for example. For semioticians, therefore, a language translation is a conversion (or a series of conversions) of information-bearing signs, just as the transformation of DNA into RNA into protein is. (In this connection, see my July 25 post.) Semioticians think, as A.L. would have put it, “at a higher level of abstraction” than linguists.

To be continued.


Ludskanov, Ljudskanov, etc.: These are just variant transliterations of his Bulgarian name. Likewise Alexander, Alexandre, Aleksandar.

Aleksander L’udskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Sofia: Nauka i Izkustvo, 1967. 159 p. Published version of his doctoral thesis of 1964.

Alexandre Ljudskanov. Traduction humaine et traduction mécanique(Documents de linguistique quantitative 2 and 4). French translation by A.L. himself, Paris, Dunod, 1969, 2 fascicles.

The website of the International Committee on Computational Linguistics is at

There’s an article in Wikipedia on the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.


Ludskanov in Italian
This post is a continuation of the preceding one. Please read the other one first.

After A.L.’s death in 1976, his book on translation theory fell into oblivion except in Bulgaria, where it was republished and his memory was kept alive by his student and assistant Elena Paskaleva; and in Leipzig, where he’d been lecturing and the German translation was a textbook. There were several reasons for the neglect:

1. There was no English translation. Contrary to what some people might think, translation studies specialists are as dependent on translations as other people.

2. There was an excellent German translation, but it was made and published in East Germany when Europe was still divided. The French translation was in A.L.’s own imperfect French – and you know how picky the French are about their language; furthermore it was execrably printed. Even in intellectual spheres, appearances do count.

3. As time wore on, the parts of the book that had to do with computing went further and further out of date. A.L. foresaw this, and told me that future translators would have to update it. And then, around 1990, research on machine translation took a whole new direction.

4. Interest in the connections between translation and semiotics became focussed on literary and cultural semiotics, which were not A.L.‘s interest.

But now A.L.’s book and its ideas have been given new life. After the long neglect, an Italian translation has unexpectedly appeared. It was done from the French version by a team, and edited by Bruno Osimo, an enterprising and discerning teacher of translation and translation theory at the University of Milan and elsewhere in Italy (more about him at

He’s dealt with the problem of updating the computer science parts of the book by the simplest and most drastic method possible: he’s cut most of them out. As he says himself:
This is not a complete and unabridged translation of the 1967 work, which had 160 pages. Some chapters that were all about machine translation have been left out entirely… The other chapters have undergone editing so as to remove the technicalities of the most ’cybernetic’ aspects of the book; they would not mean much today to people who are interested in translation. [Cybernetic, in A.L.’s usage, conformed to the East European concept that computer science was a branch of cybernetics.] Altogether, the text has been reduced by about two fifths.
Compared with the revised Bulgarian edition and the German translation, the reduction is even more drastic. In the same spirit of reader-oriented translation,
The original Bulgarian contained a great many [quasi-mathematical] symbols and formulae. Here such abbreviations, etc., have been eliminated in order to make the text more readable.
Gone too are the many footnotes, and with them the passage about ‘intuitive’ translators that I cited at the beginning of the preceding post.

Never mind. The essential Ludskanov is there. It’s good to see the book in print again and made available to another generation. Perhaps somebody will be guided by Osimo’s editing to finally produce an English version.

The book is nicely printed, and at 10 euros it’s a bargain.

To be concluded.

References (see also the preceding post)

Aleksandar Lûdskanov. Un approccio semiotico alla traduzione. Dalla prospettiva informatica alla scienza traduttiva. Italian translation by Vanessa Albertocchi, Gaia d’Alò, Emilia de Candia, Francesca Picerno, Luca Revelant, Valeria Sanguinetti, Elisa Scarmagnani and Maura Zampieri from the French translation. Edited by Bruno Osimo. Milan: Hoepli, 2008. xix, 76 p.

Aleksander Lyudskanov. Prevezhdat chovekt i machinata. Revised and expanded edition, edited by Elena Paskaleva, with a preface by the eminent Bulgarian linguist Miroslav Yanakiev. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980.

Elena Paskaleva. Alexander Ljudskanov. In W. J. Hutchins (ed.), Early Years in Machine Translation: Memoirs and Biographies of Pioneers, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2000. pp. 361-376. For fast reading, go to, although there are a few pages missing.

Alexander Ljudskanov. Mensch und Maschine als Übersetzer. German translation by Gert Jäger and Hilmar Walter of the Karl-Marx University, Leipzig, from a greatly expanded source text. Halle: Niemeyer, 1972 / Munich: Hueber, 1973. 260 p. A.L. much preferred this translation to his own French one.

There’s also a Polish translation. Osimo says he couldn’t trace it, but it’s in the catalogue of the National Library of Poland.


L’informazione traduttiva necessaria

This post is the conclusion of the two preceding ones, which should be read first.

One of the sections of Alexander Ludskanov’s magnum opus that Bruno Osimo has preserved in his Italian recension is, fortunately, 3.2.1 L’informazione traduttiva necessaria (The Information Needed for Translating). It was the subject of my last discussion with A.L. in Ottawa not long before he died.

I dwell on it here because it’s a matter that’s fundamental to all translating, whether machine, expert or natural. Only a layman thinks that a good knowledge of the two languages involved is enough information. For example, even if you know the verbs, the pronouns, the sentence forms, you can’t even translate appropriately such a simple message as “How are you?” into French, Spanish, etc., without also being informed what the social relationship is between the speaker and the hearer: Comment allez-vous? or Comment vas-tu? The term A.L. uses for such information is extralinguistic.

A.L. was acutely aware that the acquisition and incorporation of extralinguistic information presented a major problem for machine translation (MT). A few years before, in 1962, the Israeli logician and linguist Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (see photo), who was engaged in machine translation research at MIT, had declared it to be an insurmountable obstacle to the realization of what he called Fully Automatic High Quality Machine Translation. His pessimism put a damper on MT research in the United States. One of his examples was the apparently simple phrase slow neutrons and protons. In order to translate it correctly into languages that require agreement between nouns and their adjectives, it must be parsed either as (slow neutrons) + protons or as slow (neutrons + protons). But the choice between them depends on prior knowledge of, or newly acquired information about, nuclear physics. To A.L., as a semiotician, the extralinguistic information did not come directly from the world outside the translator (the ‘real world’) but from what was coded in other sign systems in the translator’s mind.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary, for the translation of a given text, that the translator possess, or have access to, the whole vast ocean of human knowledge. Each translation requires only a few drops from the ocean, and that, perhaps, might be acquirable and could be processed by a computer. Generally speaking, the more narrowly specialized the source text is, the less of the ocean is needed. But how to determine and specify precisely what information is required? That’s what we saw as the primary problem of l’informazione traduttiva necessaria.

Reference (see also the two preceding posts)

Yehosua Bar-Hillel (1915-1975). The future of Machine Translation. Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 1962. Bar-Hillel called extralinguistic information encyclopedic information. He later recanted in part and admitted that perhaps MT didn’t need to be High Quality or Fully Automatic. There’s an article on him in Wikipedia, which also tells us that his granddaughter, Gili Bar-Hillel, is the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter series.

Photo: Wikipedia

Anton Popovič. La scienza della traduzione. Aspetti metodologici. La comunicazione traduttiva. Review by Ubaldo Stecconi

Anton Popovič. La scienza della traduzione. Aspetti metodologici. La
comunicazione traduttiva, trs. Bruno Osimo and Daniela Laudani.
Milano: Editore Ulrico Hoepli, 2006. xx + 194 pp. ISBN 88-203-3511-5.
19 €. [Original: Teória umeleckého prekladu. Bratislava: Tatran, 1975.]
Reviewed by Ubaldo Stecconi (Brussels)

On May 1, 2004 ten new countries joined the EU and the division of the continent
into Western and Eastern blocs symbolically came to an end. According to many
commentators, the division had always been artificial: Europeans on opposite
sides had always shared more than their governments did. This is how Prof. Peter
Liba — who helped me put Anton Popovič’s work in its proper historical context
— put it: “We [under the totalitarian regime, behind the Iron Curtain] have never
stopped being in Europe and develop its cultural potential” (Liba 2006). From
a Western European viewpoint, this has been repeatedly confirmed as the institutional,
cultural, and intellectual heritage of the East has become progressively
familiar. The Italian edition of Teória umeleckého prekladu (1975) brings this realisation
to Translation Studies.
Anton Popovič (1933–1984) was not exactly unknown. A good academic
manager and organiser, his international links included Poland, Hungary, the
Netherlands, Canada, and the US. From his Cabinet of literary communication
at the University of Nitra, he established contacts with translation scholars (cf.
Holmes, de Haan and Popovič 1970; Popovič 1970) and the quality of his work
was recognised in Western circles (cf. Dimić 1984; Beylard-Ozeroff, Králová and
Moser-Mercer, eds. 1998; Tötösy de Zepetnek 1995; Zlateva 2000; Gentzler 2001).
However, according to Mr Osimo, who translated the text reviewed here with
Daniela Laudani, no extended part of his work has been available in the academic
lingua francas of the West (cf. pp. x–xi).1 Unfortunately, Italian is not exactly the
first choice as a lingua franca either. Teória umeleckého prekladu should appear in
more widely used languages, and I hope the reasons will be clear to you by the end
of this review.
Why did an interest in translated communication arise in Nitra in the late 1960s?
Prof. Liba informs us that the Cabinet of Literary Communication was born as
an interdisciplinary project of František Miko, a linguist, Popovič, a literary comparatist,
and other teachers. A covert disagreement with Marxist approaches to literature
lay in the background, but the project could push through because Nitra’s
marginal position eluded political monitoring. Secondly, those scholars felt they
had to critically come to terms with Western theories of literature. The initial interest
was thus literary studies, particularly Miko’s theory of style, which Popovič
74 Book reviews
— whose main interest had always been translation theory — later applied to literary
La scienza della traduzione appears 31 years after the Slovak original and 26
after the 1980 translation into Russian, on which it is also based. In spite of this,
many positions and insights still read fresh and provocative. How can it be that the
book does not show its age? I can think of two reasons: either Popovič was a Leonardo-like
genius way ahead of his time, or Translation Studies has been running
out of steam lately. This seems the conclusion Palma Zlateva reached at the end of
her comprehensive overview of the Russian edition of the work:
It is unfortunate that Popovič left us so early, before he could witness both the
influence of his ideas and our failure to overcome during these years some of the
pitfalls which he had been warning us in his writings. (Zlateva 2000: 115)
I believe she has a point. Already in the introduction, Popovič laments the lack of
a solid theoretical background in translation circles, especially practitioners (p.
xxvii). As we know, this is still the case. His solution is as follows: a theory of translation
can be developed on the basis of a more general semiotic theory of communication
and it should strive to remain an open interdisciplinary field. However,
this implies the danger that Translation Studies loses its individual character:
To prevent that researchers from other disciplines deny the science of translation
the status of an independent discipline, I have drawn a map of the relationships
between the science of translation, linguistics and comparative literature. (pp. xxviii–xxix)
The map appears at pages 12–13 and makes an interesting read if compared with
the Toury-Holmes map (e.g. in Toury 1995: 10) Western scholars are more familiar
Popovič was bold and optimistic, but it seems to me that we have not moved
a lot forward since. Perhaps Translation Studies has chosen the wrong time to
fight for the independence of its province within the larger confederation of the
human sciences. Today’s research — both in the human and the natural sciences
— is no longer structured around disciplinary boundaries but around problems,
regardless of where their solutions may come from. At any rate, it is interesting
to note the close association between a solid theory for translation and a precise
technical terminology for its operational concepts. This attention to a ‘scientific’
terminology is demonstrated by a 30-page glossary that closes the book. The glossary
is explicitly presented as “a theoretical microsystem” (p. 147) and most of the
entries it includes read like an encyclopedia. Theory, specialist terminology, and
independence are three corners of one and the same figure for Popovič: “although
the science of translation has an interdisciplinary outlook, there exists a specific
Book reviews 75
domain for it which does not automatically borrow the terminology of the other
disciplines” (p. 5).
According to Prof. Liba, Popovič translated little and did not have a large firsthand
experience of literary translation. In spite of this, I found his remarks on the
practical act of translating insightful and to the point. Starting from the recognition
that any translation is a secondary model, Popovič writes that “Translating …
is a consequence of the clash between primary and secondary communication” (p.
47). This is a theoretical position that sets the stage for a dynamic and dialectical
view of translating.
One can find a first reflection of this view already in the terms proposed for
what we sometime call source and target texts. Popovič defines them prototext and
metatext, thus highlighting their distinct and convergent functions for the act of
translating. The prototext is defined as “Subject of intertextual continuity. Original
text, primary model which is the basis for second-degree textual operations” (p.
166). This definition suggests an ontological primacy for the act of translating, of
which the prototext is nothing more than a ‘basis’. Consistently, the metatext is
defined as a “Model of the prototext” which is the product of “a logopoietic activity
carried out by the author of the metatext” (p. 159). What are the crucial elements
around which this logopoietic activity revolves? Recalling the literary context in
which Popovič operated, it is not surprising that style comes first, with content and
expression distant seconds. “The concept of translational correspondence must be
defined above all at the stylistic level; content and language elements give equally
important functional contributions to it” (p. 76). At this point it should be obvious
that the text is the only workable unit of translation: “Ideally a translation that
strives to build stylistic similarities must be carried out at textual level” (p. 68).
This outlook has interesting consequences on the notion of equivalence. “The
art of translation is the exact reproduction of the prototext as a whole” (p. 82). This
statement should not be mistaken as endorsing such ideas as perfect equivalence
or identity. Popovič forcefully rejects the notion of total equivalence; in fact, his
core theoretical argument is the alternative and more realistic notion of change or
shift. Translators change the prototext precisely in order to convey it as exactly as
possible, “to possess it in its totality” (ibid.). Both absolute freedom and absolute
faithfulness are self-contradictory conceptions; in fact, translating can actually be
defined in terms of stylistic, linguistic or semantic shifts. There can be no trade-off
between faithfulness and freedom; rather, they are dialectically related.
The optimal situation is functional stylistic change; i.e. change whose goal is
the expression of the prototext’s character in a way that responds to the conditions
of the other system (p. 83). This state of affairs gives translators their fair share of
semiotic responsibility. Popovič has no doubt that translating involves creativity:
76 Book reviews
Every translator interprets the prototext and develops its creative potential.
(p. 126)
A translator is both more and less than a writer. Less, because his or her art is ‘secondary’.
More, because … he or she has to mix analytical thinking with creative
abilities; create according to fixed rules; and introduce the prototext into a new
context. (p. 38)
Because creativity means making choices, this complex translational task can be
neatly expressed as follows: “Translators choose within choices already made” (p.
39). As we know well, not everyone is convinced that translating involves creativity
yet. Those who deny translators’ creative efforts presuppose that translating is a
simple recording of the original; those who recognise them presuppose that translating
happens in the mind of the translator. Popovič would certainly prefer the
latter position as is evidenced by his rejection of the conception of the copy and of
machine translation: “Machine translation … is devoid of style; to use a figure, it
is ‘dehydrated’. Since it is not a text, automatic translation cannot even be regarded
as a translation in the first place” (p. 69).
Popovič refuses to accept that the copy, the perfect matching of all levels of expression
between prototext and metatext, is a desirable — if unreachable — limit
translators should tend to. In fact, the copy is the opposite of translation; its very
negation. It is not the first time a case needs to be made along these lines for the independence
of a form of semiotic work. A debate in early 16th century Italy compared
the expressive powers of painting to poetry and sculpture. Then too people wondered
whether painting originated in the imagination or was a mere recording of
something else. Today, we have no doubt that painters are creative artists, but before
the year 1500 they were regarded more or less as craftsmen. Masters such as Bellini,
Giorgione and Titian, active in Venice in the first three decades of the century, helped
change the public perception of painters. When will this happen to translators? Arguments
like those included in La scienza della traduzione can certainly bring that
time closer, and this is another reason why — I repeat — I hope this book will soon
appear in a language that is more familiar to the community of scholars.
. All references to La Scienza della traduzione include page numbers only; all translations into
English are mine.
Book reviews 77
Beylard-Ozeroff, Ann, Jana Králová and Barbara Moser-Mercer, eds. 1998. Translators’ strategies
and creativity: Selected papers from the 9th International Conference on Translation and Interpreting,
Prague, September 1995 — In honor of Jiří Levý and Anton Popovič. AmsterdamPhiladelphia:
John Benjamins. [Benjamins Translation Library, 27.]
Dimić, Milan V. 1984. “Anton Popovič in Memoriam”. Canadian review of comparative literature
/ Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée. 11:2. 350.
Gentzler, Edwin. 2001. Contemporary translation theories (2nd edition). Clevedon: Multilingual
Holmes, James S, Frans de Haan and Anton Popovič, eds. 1970. The nature of translation: Essays
on the theory and practice of literary translation. The Hague: Mouton.
Liba, Peter. 2006. Personal communication. 5 August.
Popovič, Anton. 1976. Dictionary for the analysis of literary translation. Edmonton: Department
of Comparative Literature, The University of Alberta.
Popovič, Anton. 1970. “The concept of ‘shift of expression’ in translation analysis”. Holmes et al.
1970. 78–90.
Toury, Gideon. 1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond. Amsterdam-Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. 1995. “Towards a taxonomy for the study of translation”. Meta 40:3.
421–444. [Reworked version of Popovič 1976.]
Zlateva, Palma. 2000. “A wheel we have been reinventing. Review of Anton Popovic’s Problemy khudozhestvennogo
perevoda [Problems of Literary Translation]”. The translator 6:1. 109–116.
Reviewer’s address
European Commission
MADO 10/84