What does it mean?

What is Interpretation? 

When one hears the word “interpretation,” what definitions come to mind? I initially assumed that “to interpret” meant “to translate” language or to break down a concept into simpler terms. In literary study, the definition is much more expansive. Rather than simplify concepts, interpretations often complicate expansively.

In it’s etymology… ‘interpretation’ [directs understanding] toward a text is to be interpreted to and for an audience in need of interpretation.”

Let translate this quotation from Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.  An interpretation is specific to the audience seeking that interpretation. The wording above is a tad misleading, because the phrase “interpreted to and for” insinuates that a higher being should guide all translation. However, because each audience is unique to learning strategies, patterns of reasoning, and goals for interpretation, the only beings qualified to interpret meaning are part of the specific audience in question.  If the audience is using appropriate reasoning strategies as such, the interpretation gained is “correct” for that situation.

Interpretations are not limited to textual documents. Anything essence that requires one to find meaning also requires active interpretation.  Such interpretations may come from a poem, novel, political document, television show, film, commercial, or idea).  Because interpretations are personal to each “reader,” the personal strategies used to gain such interpretations then give a certain meaning to the original “text.” Therefore, a text does not have meaning until one formulates an interpretation of it.

Formalist criticism argues against this theory, giving high importance to author intention and universal meaning. For example, such a critic would support that Chaucer created the Wife of Bath to represent a particular type of woman (that she was written as a mockery of women).  The problem with this theory is that readers can’t always interview an author about his or her intentions. Furthermore, even if author is interviewed, a separate interpretation should not be considered invalid, because the reader has come to an understanding because of the writing, rather than the author’s intention.

Extended Thoughts: 

To approach the how of interpreting… you may interpret the text with history or allegory (or both). You may place the text in a historical setting to to specify meaning, or you can take the meaning as universal.

Now I’m reminded of politics after reading the Huckleberry Finn and ABM treaty excerpts and explanations. This also brings to mind discussions I’ve been having about the President’s Speech on the anniversary of the march on Washington. Past intentions can construe present meanings based on persuasion and recent events. I believe nothing can ever be fully interpreted when politics are concerned because the details are always changing.


Author: Ellen C. Scherer

💚Intersectional Feminist, Writer, Book Lover and Reviewer 💚

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