Reading Piaget in translation

How interesting! Paul Jurczak asserts that English translations of Piaget omit important metaphorical aspects of his work.

(Referring to Margaret Cook’s translations of Piaget,) Jurczak notes that Piaget’s “…prose tends to be descriptive and spare in its use of metaphor or other figures of speech. His writing tends to be, in fact, rather pedestrian.
However, there is not a complete absence of literary form in Piaget’s writing. Literary form is definitely present. Piaget employs metaphorical/imagistic language, and the prevailing images he uses are biological: birth and the growth of plants. However, the English translations of the two works named above have a disturbing tendency to eliminate and otherwise alter Piaget’s metaphors. Comparing the English translations with the French originals, one finds three significant kinds of changes: (1) a substantial portion of biological metaphors have been altered in favor of more mechanistic ones; (2) some of Piaget’s metaphors are eliminated altogether; and (3) a frequently used term having a long history of philosophical usage is rendered in mechanistic late twentieth century terms. In neither text do I find a single instance of the translation adopting a more biological metaphor for Piaget’s mechanistic ones. We are told that Piaget may be understood as a proponent of an “organismic” world view. There seems to be significantly more support for this assertion in the original French texts than in their English translations.
Words will be underlined throughout this paper in order to draw attention to important changes. Let us look primarily at The Origins of Intelligence in Children. A slight alteration in the title itself is an indication of the kinds of subtle changes that occur regularly throughout the book. In the French original, the title is La Naissance de L’Intelligence Chez L’Enfant—The Birth of Intelligence in Children.” The substitution of the word “origin” for “birth,” perhaps, is a small matter. However, when one readily finds dozens of similar alterations throughout the text, one might claim that the cumulative difference made by multiple alterations significantly alters understanding of the text in English.” (pp.312-313)

Jurczak also notes that: “In explaining the action of the reflexes, Piaget repeatedly employs the metaphor of the door-latch. This metaphor is totally absent from the translation.” (p.315) He adds: “One may not want to make a ruckus over the elimination of this metaphor, but it is a metaphor that Piaget continued to use in the book that followed. Early in The Construction of Reality, Piaget again takes up the metaphor of the door-latch. When considering the early stages of recognition in the infant, Piaget likens this recognition to reflex in calling it an “unlatching.” But again this metaphor is eliminated from the translation.” (p.316)

He concludes: “I believe that the loss of so many metaphors in the translation of Piaget’s work has a significant effect on the understanding of his total system. But even worse, all too often students of Piaget are presented with a set of disconnected generalizations in textbooks—a sort of Reader’s Digest version. And it is to those who would quickly try to assimilate a few general structures out of the whole of Piaget’s work that the loss of even a few connections may be disastrous. Piaget deliberately uses metaphors to construct links among various psychological functions (e.g., between reflex and recognition, and between equilibration and recognition schema). And the loss of these metaphors in the translation hinders attempts to understand Piaget’s work.” (p.317)

He also notes that: “though little or nothing in the translations of both The Origins of Intelligence in Children and The Construction of the Real in the Child could be said to be “wrong,” much of the original “organismic” flavor has been removed and replaced by something more mechanistic or behavioristic.” (p.318)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Paul M Jurczak (1997) The Language and Metaphor of Jean Piaget. Educational Psychology Review 9(3); 311-318

Abstract: “The English translations of Piaget’s work often miss qualities of his writing that distinguish his “organismic” model of psychology from more mechanistic models. This paper is a comparison of the English translations of Piaget’s The Origins of Intelligence in Children and The Construction of the Real in the Child with the French originals. Three substantial differences between the French originals and the English translations are discussed: (a) many of Piaget’s biological metaphors are altered in favor of more mechanistic ones, (b) some of Piaget’s metaphors are entirely eliminated, and (c) Piaget uses metaphors to construct links between similar ideas. I conclude that the French originals offer more support for the assertion of Piaget’s “organismic” model, and that the reader’s understanding of Piaget is hindered by the exclusion of Piaget’s metaphors from the English language texts.”



About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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