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indeterminacy of translation

Indeterminacy of translation refers to the inability to ever fully translate the meaning of a word from one language to another. While this refers mainly to translation between natural languages, it can also refer to individuals using the same language trying to understand one another's full meaning.

When approaching the problem of understanding a word, there are two parts that must be taken into mind. There is the sound of a word, which can be referred to as the "phonetic part". In this part, an individual learns the proper way to vocalize the sound of the word. Then there is the more complex part of the word which relates to its actual meaning, and that is known as the "semantic part". When an individual speaks the word that he has phonetically learned, he then refers to something outside of himself. Usually this is a reference to an object, though it can also be a more abstract reference to an idea. When it comes to learning the semantic part, though, more is required than just hearing the sound. One must be able to "see what is stimulating the other speaker" (Quine 28). When words refer to abstract ideas, there can be a problem, because the meaning of words can be determined by an individual's mindset and experiences. Therefore, even when speaking the same language, two individuals can be speaking about the same thing but have a different idea of it in their minds and therefore not be able to fully communicate about it.

Indeterminacy is something that can be seen even more apparently with differing languages. Quine uses the example of the foreign word "gavagai," which is uttered when a native speaker points at a rabbit. A linguist trying to understand the language has to decide whether the native speaker's utterance means "rabbit," "undetached rabbit parts," or "rabbit stages" (Quine 32). The problem is that in the native language, there may be a different system of reference than in our language, and so there may be words that mean more than one thing, just as we have words that can have an exact referential meaning and a more "abstract singular term" at the same time (Quine 38). While the physical ostension that a native makes to an object when she says a word can be noted, it cannot be known for sure what she is speaking about without understanding the conceptual foundations that the language exists upon (see inscrutability of reference). Therefore, while translations can be inferred with a decent amount of accuracy, there is never a certainty that all meanings are understood in all contexts.

--Robert Seeloff II


Quine, W. V. O. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.