WAAT #47: On Cohesion and Coherence


Cohesion is about the surface relations between the sentences that make up a text. Coherence is more about the underlying relations between the sentences that make up a text. Cohesion is about the parts. Coherence is about the whole.

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Last week, I attended a private Zoom discussion with a group of translators in India. They’re all working on a Routledge book series called ‘Writers in Context‘, focusing on Indian writers from different languages. As the description there says: “Each book has been designed to showcase the writer’s oeuvre along with its cultural context, literary tradition, critical reception, and contemporary resonance.” Sukrita Paul Kumar and Chandana Dutta are the series editors and Vandana R. Singh is the managing editor. My role in this session was simply to spark discussion around some of the very topics I write about in this newsletter. While we covered a fair bit of ground over an hour and a half, one theme we kept returning to was: cohesion and coherence.

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Now, if you’ve taken any courses or read any books on linguistics, you might already know what these terms mean. If not, here’s a quick overview (note: although the piece is filed under software development tutorial, it is also exploring these terms in relation to writing, text, and translation.)

I’ve found that an experienced translator rarely talks about the untranslatability, unintelligibility, obscurity, fluency, fidelity, or readability (that old chestnut) of a text. Those are more the kinds of things we hear from book critics and readers. And even, sometimes, from editors of translated works.

We are more likely to hear experienced translators discussing issues like cohesion, coherence, intentionality, relevance, informativity, situationality, and intertextuality of a text. Even if they may not be using those exact words. They are, by the way, the seven standards of textuality as defined by De Beaugrande and Dressler in Introduction to Text Linguistics and here’s a Wiki overview.

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I don’t want to get into linguistics theory here but I do want to say something about two of those seven standards: cohesion and coherence.

A simple set of definitions:
—Cohesion is about the surface relations between the sentences that make up a text. It’s about word choices, grammar, syntax, punctuation, structure, transitions, etc.
—Coherence is more about the underlying relations between the sentences that make up a text. So this is more about bringing one’s own experiences/knowledge to the translation; understanding intra- and inter-individual differences that may affect the reader’s inferences and assumptions; exploiting the familiar and expected relationships between ideas to make meaningful connections (even when those relationships are implicit); approaching questions about foreignization and domestication more sensitively; ensuring the unity of a text at the global level to account for themes, gists, summaries, conclusions, and more.

The analogy I’ve come across most often is that of a building. Cohesion is about the strength and integrity of the individual bricks and how well they fit together; coherence is about the overall strength and integrity of the building and how well it has been constructed overall.

Cohesion is about the parts; coherence is about the whole.

Cohesion is created by the writer/translator; coherence requires the reader’s participation because they have to pick up on certain connections, allusions, and inferences to make more meaning from the text overall.

Cohesion doesn’t always result in coherence within a text; for coherence to exist, we need cohesion first.

Cohesion, as a skill, evolves through translation experience; coherence, as a skill, requires, in addition to translation experience, more critical reading and research around a text (for both translators and readers.)

And the above features are also some of the reasons why experienced translators often spend more time discussing—in their notes, introductions, interviews, essays, and even footnotes and glossaries—how they sought to find and create coherence with their work.

All that said, sometimes, a greater focus on cohesion by editors, readers, and reviewers happens at the expense of coherence. What I mean is that a greater focus on those other aspects I had mentioned earlier—fluency, fidelity, readability, etc.—might cause us to miss the most important things that readers can gain from translated works: those larger interpretations and inferences of patterns, themes, and cultural nuances. We might miss the forest for the trees, if that’s not too much of a cliché here. Also, we need to think deeper about how we define aspects like fluency, fidelity, and readability—topics that deserve a lot more time and space so we’ll get to them later.

NOTE: I am not talking about the kind of coherence here that George Saunders recently discussed in this Esquire interview, where he said the following:

You start on a certain path with Chekhov and he knows where you’re going, so he anticipates and then diverts. That process repeats and repeats, then by the end, you’re left looking at him like, “What am I supposed to believe?” And he’s like, “Exactly. See you later.” That opened a door in my mind; it helped me believe that a story doesn’t have to be a coherent system of advice or belief. It’s actually a way for the reader to enact a process of becoming both more unsure and more in love with things like that. In a way, you’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow.

Esquire. “George Saunders Interview – Author Talks ‘Liberation Day’, Storytelling, Politics,” October 18, 2022.

I agree that a fictional narrative doesn’t need to hand a neatly packaged coherent system of advice or belief to the reader on a platter. They could read a how-to or a self-improvement book for that. But every good story leaves us with critical things to think about. It is the literary translator’s job to ensure that those important points or questions—that trail of breadcrumbs—come across coherently enough so that the reader can follow along as Saunders has said. And it is the reader’s job to actively engage, follow, and make the connections and inferences that the translated text offers up to them. This is why I talk often about the need to read and review translations differently.

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By the way, this is also how experienced translators sometimes choose their texts: they’re looking for how much coherence they can bring to a writer’s work through their own experiences, knowledge, and research. And this is why we say that the translator is the co-writer of the text, not merely someone who transposes a text from one language to another.

Text linguistics is a vast topic and many books and essays have been written about it. My goal here is to simply spark some discussion as with the ‘Writers in Context’ translators’ session mentioned earlier. As a translator and/or a reader, what is your understanding of the cohesion and coherence of a translated text? Do share your thoughts in the comments area below (if you’re reading this as an email, you can click the heading to go to the comments page.)

Next weekend, I will be at the South Asian Literature and Arts Festival in the Bay Area. If you’re around, please let me know and it would be lovely to meet in person. This also means I might not be able to send this newsletter out next Monday (but let’s see how things go.)

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas. (Photo Credit: Pixel Voyage Photography / Arushi Gupta)

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