The word semiosis refers to the relationship between a sign and its meaning — a relationship that permits communication. Among humans, we usually use language to communicate, but humans have many languages, each one with a unique system of oral and written signs.
I speak English and Spanish, and here’s an unexpected way that the signs used by the two languages work differently:
I used to live in Spain, and one day when I was at home, I picked up a magazine, started reading, and the words made no sense. I felt surprised and confused. I had magazines in both English and Spanish, and I knew those languages well. There should have been no problem.
I took another look. The magazine was in English, but I had been reading it as if it were in Spanish. There’s a big difference.
In English, we read mostly by the shape of the word, not by the letters one at a time. The letters themselves don’t always signify a lot: every rule of spelling and phonics has too many exceptions. Words are what matter, and English-language readers naturally learn to decode whole words at a time.
But Spanish is written phonetically. I can look at any word, even if I’ve never seen it before, and pronounce it correctly. When I read in Spanish, I mentally sound out the letters because it’s the most efficient reading strategy for that language. The sounds naturally add up to the word.
That’s what I’d been doing with English: reading letter by letter as if it were Spanish. The result was gibberish. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I used different techniques for different languages. I just read.
Reading is only the first step to translating between languages. I’m a certified translator for Spanish into English, and among my literary translations is the novel Prodigies by Angélica Gorodischer. Recently Axion e-zine interviewed me and Amalia Gladhart, who has also translated a Gorodischer novel. We discussed why specific works get translated, and some of the technical and artistic considerations at the level of sentences and word choice. Beautiful prose follows different rules in Spanish and English.
When you read, a lot can be different and yet achieve the same goal: communication and shared meaning.