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Thursday, March 03, 2011

the container metaphor

I am wondering if the container metaphor  (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) is really all that important to exegesis and translation. My recent reading in K. A. McElhanon [1] has left me somewhat skeptical about the significance of what some analysts might consider a language universal. If it is really universal then the semantic significance recedes into the background. If we all use the metaphors then the metaphors don't really carry any information, they are frozen speech habits passed down from the prehistory of language.

Now that I am aware of the life as journey and other travel metaphors, I find them everywhere in my own writing. If you unpack the metaphor in translation you end up with a flat dry lifeless proposition. This was my initial objection to E.A. Nida theory put into practice, it killed the literary quality of the work. While the Nida disciples were bent on telling us what bad translations were had been reading all our lives, I would compare their renderings to any of the older English versions and say: This is literary art and that is not. Perhaps unpacking the metaphors had something to do with this but I think there is more going here than a collection of idioms built on body language. When I read all way through one of McElhanon's papers, at first I am agreeing with him but by the end I think he has gone off the rails[2]. I think that taking Lakoff and Johnson too seriously is just as dangerous as being a Nida disciple.

I prefer to skim these works, pick up a few useful ideas and move on. Getting too serious about any particular linguistic framework is counter productive. I've seen it turn good language students into shrill dogmatic promoters of some framework which is already on its way out.      

[1] Kenneth A. McElhanon, From Word to Scenario: The Influence of Linguistic Theories Upon Models of Translation
Journal of Translation, Volume 1, Number 3 (2005)

Kenneth A. McElhanon, From Simple Metaphors to Conceptual Blending: The Mapping of Analogical Concepts and the Praxis of Translation
Journal of Translation, Volume 2, Number 1 (2006)

[2] note the travel metaphor.


Anonymous Mike Aubrey said...

If we all use the metaphors then the metaphors don't really carry any information, they are frozen speech habits passed down from the prehistory of language.

Thankfully, there are other apodoses that could follow from that particular condition. And cognitive linguists have drawn a dramatically different conclusion than you have here.

While I completely understand your inclination to dabble in a variety of different linguistic perspectives (and I often do it myself), I also find it unfortunate that you're stopping where you are because you've missed the fundamental point of conceptual metaphor theory and its relationship to cognitive linguistics.

8:53 AM  
Blogger C. Stirling Bartholomew said...


I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if I have not caught on to conceptual metaphor theory. It isn't anything which I have read about before. I don't understand or appreciate why we need the theory or what it does for us.

9:13 AM  
Blogger C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

I went through both articles again. Nothing hard to understand there. No points missed. Most of it is an exhausting elaboration of the obvious. The primary scenario in which conceptual metaphors have an impact on translation praxsis would be difference between SL and TL in regard to a particular conceptual metaphor, for example truth as a road vs. truth as an object. My dismissive comment about body language conceptual metaphors assumed that most cultures will share the container metaphors and spacial metaphors. In the case were there is mismatch on these issues between SL and TL, then they also become an issue for translation.

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Mike Aubrey said...

This just occurred to me: the container metaphor is essential for understanding the function and meaning of certain prepositions across languages--it does wonders for ἐν, for instance.

8:40 PM  

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