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Semiotics of Translation in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

“There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Strating from Van den Broeck’s and Lefevere’s (1979: 61-66) laws of
translatability (in to determine the degree of translatability of a text), a novel should be a
quite easily translatable text, as “the larger the unit of translation, the larger the
translatability would be, and vice versa.” But this is a valid statement only when referring
to the first law because, on the other hand in the latter five laws an enormous importance
is given to “the degree of contact between the source language and target language”,
implying that “the source language and target language are on an equal cultural level of
development”, and, most importantly, “translatability can be influenced by the expression
possibilities of the target language. No two languages are similar. During the translation
process some cultural coloring and nuances will be lost, but could also be gained due to
the vocabulary and lexical diversity of the target text.”
However, these laws imply a certain loss in meaning when institutions, specific
environment and culture are described. This is, somewhat, the case of “One flew….”, as
both Nurse Ratched’s mental institution(who "dreams . . . [of] a world of precision
efficiency and tidiness like a pocket watch with a glass back, a place where the schedule
is unbreakable and all the patients who aren’t Outside, obedient under her beam, are
wheelchair Chronics with catheter tubes run direct from every pantleg to the sewer under
the floor.”) and the cultural influences(the myth of the Fisher King, the Indian legend of
the Red-Headed Stranger and so on so forth) that appear in the text are essentially
different from those that appear in Romanian culture. Under these conditions, it is quite
difficult for the translator to use a translation theory that meets the requirements of the
discourse and its function. Generally speaking, the "weight" (connotations, denotations,
familiarity) of cultural elements in the source text in order to translate them into the target
text and bring about the same effect as in the source text is impossible, because it
involves the problem of subjectivity.
Nonetheless, from the semiotics of translation’s point of view, the text is taken as
a sign and thus is anything that can be interpreted, and must be physically and mentally
perceptible, language being only one of many systems of signs (Winner 1978: 337). The
semiotic aspects of a discourse such as Kesey’s text should be incorporated in order to
make cultural transfer possible. In other words, not merely the random substitution of one
image or symbol with another in the target language, but the use of symbols in the target
language which will create the same effect and have the same impact and meaning on the
target receivers as they had on the source receivers. – aspectul semantic *
2 points of view in semiotics, de Saussure vs. Peirce, Pierce’s point of view
being more suitable for the given text.
It has been argued, however, that Peirce’s triadic model of the sign consists of the
following: (1) the representamen (the form which the sign takes), (2) the interpretant (the
sense made of the sign), and (3) the object (to which the sign refers). The way these
three are distorted when speaking of:
-the title, translated in Romanian erroneously as "One flight over the cuckoo's nest",
changes the whole perspective on Kesey's novel; the central character ceases to be R.P.M,
but almost anyone/anything, as the subject of the action(flying) isn't mentioned. On the
other hand, if translated correctly, the title would have suggested an
individuality, someone capable of seeing and understanding what happened in the
cuckoo's nest, its clockwise personnel and the Wasteland behind it.
Critics have often compared Kesey’s novel (the Hinterland it offers to the attentive
reader) to T.S.Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”. Moreover, an analogy can be made
between "One flight over…."(Romanian title) and the Phoenician Sailor(“Madame
Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, Had a bad cold, nevertheless Is known to be the wisest
woman in Europe, 45 With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she, Is your card, the
drowned Phoenician Sailor[…]Fear death by water.”)from T.S.Eliot's poem "The
Wasteland" on one hand, and, on the other hand, the original title and The Man with
Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) that is usually associated, quite
arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself. While the Phoenician Sailor epitomizes a whole
range of characters that are somehow similar, the character of the poem, The Fisher King
in search of the Holy Grail, represents individuality but, nevertheless, a possible
Phoenician Sailor himself.
-nurse Ratched – Difficulties and impasses in literary interpretation can often be traced
back to erroneous generic classification. This would seem to apply in the case of the
critical commonplace that fully realized “three-dimensional” female characters in
American fiction written by men are few and far in between, while it abounds in women
who are vicious, domineering and emasculating. Archetypal critics such as Leslie Fiedler
have long contended that this shortcoming is due to the nature of the basic American
mythos underlying American Fiction – “the old, old fable of the White outcast and the
noble Red Man joined together against home and mother, against the female world of
civilization”. According to Fiedler, the Castrating Female is an American archetype,
hypostatized by Big Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s novel. She works by intimidation,
coercion, electro-shock treatment and the lobotomizing scalpel, not only against Indians,
but against males as well. Critics who saw Big Nurse as a realistic character had the
similar task of proving that she is a vehicle of a calumnious attack on women by an
openly misogynist author, expressing male fear turned aggression of the Eisenhower era.
[1]. There were, however, others that proposed that the work is an Oedipal “family
romance”(Bad Mother=Big Nurse, Good Father=Randal Patrick McMurphy;
Sons=mental patients) or an adventure(RPM=quest hero, BNR=dragon) or even a
comedy(BNR as a typical comic villain”). However, it has been argued that the central
myth depicted in the novel is that of the Fisher King…
All in all, the fact is that any perception of the text is conditioned by previous
memories of similar events or affects, or, metaphorically said, “the memory of one’s
experience is a cage in which his new perceptions are prisoners.” Thus, both memory and
experience play a key-role when translating a book. The act of translation itself is,
undoubtedly, a form of subjective culture and, nonetheless, a form of transmission from
the emitter (author) to the recipient(reader) intermediated by another reader, that is the
translator. Moreover, it seems that the text the ultimate foreign reader receives is just a
“reproduction”(synonymously to the term used in art)of the original text, a vision of it
throughout the translator’s subjective culture, that is, less euphemistically said, a
distortion of the genuine version.

***According to Northrop Frye, a text has three levels of interpretation:

semantic, verbal and syntactic. The process of translation implies and affects all the
three levels mentioned above:
-for the semantic level, the Big Nurse Ratched case when the translator might not know
or understand all that has been said related to the Castrating Female Archetype. Only in
deep understanding of a text, may the subtle allusions of it get to the second rang reader;
-for the verbal level, i.e. the words the text is made from, there is a discussion related to
the topic of the words in a phrase, that can be poetically-reductive, let’s say, for
languages that do not have the same origin(English as a Germanic language and
Romanian as a Neolatin one).
-for the syntactic level, that is the logical relations between the phrases the text is made
of, there would be a discussion about the sequence of tenses and the restricted palette of
tenses usable in Romanian, that cuts off all subtleness in character’s actions.