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Translators’ Confrontations with False Ideas about Language
Posted on Tuesday, September 25 @ 01:06:03 CEST
Topic: Translation

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Some of the more aggravating frustrations suffered by translators are the numerous false ideas about language. Too often people assume that if translators only need a good dictionary and a big grammar, they can translate any document into almost any language. Unfortunately most people do not realize that by the time a sizable dictionary is published, it is at least twenty-five years out of date because it takes at least that much time to do the necessary research about language usage. And if such research depends largely on published sources, then these documents are likely to represent even older forms of a language. A fully qualified translator must have in his or her head much more information than any dictionary can ever provide, but it is very subtle data about the way in which different words go together to produce a clear and pleasing text.

Too many publishers imagine that they can farm out translations to a nephew or niece who is studying a foreign language, but the pathetic results of this kind of procedure are all too common. Or a manufacturer may believe that his manual about operating a particular machine is so clear in the original language that almost any translator can produce an adequate translation. And yet advertising and instructional brochures are precisely the kinds of translated documents that often prove both strange and misleading. One set of instructions in English from a European manufacturer about assembling a wood working machine was hopelessly inadequate. I simply could not understand how to proceed, but fortunately the manufacturer had enclosed a copy of the original German text.

Some people argue that many translations would be completely comprehensible if translators would only use the "older, purer" forms of the language. They blame the constant "corruption" of their language on borrowings from foreign languages, on users of slang, and on clever sports writers who are always inventing new ways of misusing words. But there are no pure languages. In fact, more than half of the vocabulary of English comes from languages all over the world, eg tomato from Spanish, thug from Hindi, kimono from Japanese, and taboo from Polynesian languages in the South Pacific. Borrowings are the lexical life blood of all languages.

In trying to defend purity in language many persons insist that speech should follow the words and grammar of written language because printed texts are always more refined and authoritative. But most persons who try to imitate written language in their speech are often unaware of how pedantic they sound. Academic language is essentially only a rhetorical dialect and is much more impoverished in communicative effectiveness because written language lacks the remarkable paralinguistic features of tone of voice, intonation, speed of utterance, loudness, patterns of enunciation, and rhythm, so meaningful in verbal communication. In fact, a snarling tone of voice can change the statement I love you into an expression of of hate or contempt, and intemperate loudness can suggest that the speaker is trying to cover up his ignorance.

The fact that written language is often more difficult to comprehend than spoken language leads many persons to conclude that the more difficult a text is to understand the more authoritative it must be. They have no doubt had experience in trying to read contracts and legal notices, and they know how difficult the language is to understand and how binding are the meanings. Accordingly, they assume that if a translation is difficult to comprehend because it follows the original almost word for word, it must ipso facto be better.

The lack of intelligibility in some religious texts is particularly appreciated because such a text seems to communicate something of the mystery of faith and of intimate spiritual relations with God or supernatural powers. Furthermore, the capacity to understand such difficult texts is often regarded as a sign of superior spiritual capacities or of special divine blessing. Some people, however, are willing to admit that they prefer a religious text they do not fully understand because they are then exempt from the moral or ethical requirements contained in such writings.

Persons who do not put much faith in books often put great faith in familiar proverbs and adages. Such expressions are thought to be tested by time and therefore evidently true. For example, many people cite the expression "The exception proves the rule" as a way of dealing with facts that do not fit an argument. They simply do not realize that when this saying was first employed, the word prove actually meant "to test". This is obviously true because exceptions do test a rule. But used in its present-day setting, the statement is pure nonsense.

Arguments about language use are usually settled by looking up words in a dictionary or by trying to find a relevant statement in a grammar book or in a style manual. For example, English speakers who say firster are criticized for using an expression that is regarded as totally illogical because a term such as first is semantically absolute and therefore cannot give rise to comparative or superlative forms. But in Classical Greek the adjective protos "first" occurs not only in the comparative form proteros "firster" but also in the superlative form protistos "firstest". These comparative and superlative forms are primarily emphatic, but they do occur, even though they are logically impossible.

The formats in which texts are printed can also be a source of serious misunderstanding about language. For example, many English-speaking people believe that something produced in poetic lines is simply the idea of some person, while a prose format immediately indicates something truthful and reliable. In fact, one Bible translator, who had paid close attention to the poetic qualifies of certain Hebrew and Greek texts, published all of his translation in a prose format, because, as he insisted, if the translations of poetry occur in a poetic format, people will insist that the words are only the thoughts of people and not a message from God. Such conclusions are of course completely contrary to the significance of poetry in the Old Testament. Because of the figurative expressions and the measured lines, the poetic texts were regarded as being particularly inspired.

Many persons are convinced that translations can only take place between languages with dictionaries and grammars because languages must exist in books. In reality, languages exist in people’s heads, in those intricate networks of synapses that can store incredible quantities of information and can be reactivated so rapidly that people can even "speak before thinking", -something too many people do and accordingly suffer the consequences of what they say.

Languages appear to be related to at least three sets of networks: (1) an initial network that acts as templates to recognize sounds, words and grammatical relations and to reverse the process in producing verbal messages, (2) a conceptual area of the brain where concepts are stored, and (3) a third network that relates the recognition and production network to the conceptual. The complexity of the cerebral networks are almost beyond imagination, and together with the cosmos they constitute the two great mysteries of human existence.

The idea that language is dependent on dictionaries and grammars is so fundamental to the thinking of many persons that they cannot conceive of how a translation can be made in a language that has no such crucial tools. Because people relate language so closely to printed texts, they often insist that it is entirely impossible to translate something like the Bible into a so-called primitive language. In reality, of course, there is no such thing as a primitive language in the sense of a language having only a few hundred words and no grammar. The languages of people with a limited material culture are often exceedingly complex with tens of thousands of words and with grammatical constructions that are far more intricate than anything found in Indo-European languages. For example, a typical Quechua verb beginning with a root can be followed by more than a score of suffixial sets in up to eight positions, with as many as 20,000 different forms for a single verb.

The diversities of culture may also give rise to widely different ways of talking about particular experiences. For example, in one of the Melanesian languages of New Guinea the term forgiveness is spoken of as "not hanging up jawbones". In this head-hunting society the family of a victim killed in ambush normally rescues the body and then before burial carefully removes the jaw and hangs it on the door post to remind each member of the family that some day in the future a member of this household must avenge the death by killing a member of the family responsible for the murder. It is interesting to note that the jawbone is regarded as the symbol of the dead person because it is so closely related to speech, recognized by most people as the most distinguishing feature of a person. But a person who forgives what has happened is called "the one who does not hand up jawbones". Accordingly, in speaking about God’s forgiveness of people in a translation of the New Testament in the local language, the text simply says, "God does not hang up jaw bones."

Because of the vast variety of languages in the world, estimated at more than 4,000, but with half that number representing at least 99 percent of the world’s population, some people insist that what is needed is a truly international language that everyone can learn quickly and use properly. Accordingly, many people urge the use of a synthetic language such as Esperanto, but the vocabulary of Esperanto is largely based on Indo-European languages and excludes the thousands of other languages. But the real liability in Esperanto is its lack of a culture to support it. A language is always an integral part of a culture: one of its most distinguishing features, a model of corresponding cultural concepts, and the indispensable means of transmission of a culture from one generation to another. Language is an interactive phenomenon that requires constant participation by members of a language-culture.

Although Esperanto is no solution to widespread communication, the English language is fulfilling this role more and more. Faxing, E-mail, the cinema, and CNN television news casts are spreading the use of English with incredible speed. English is already the official language of air travel, and the most likely language of international meetings. This does not mean, however, that speakers of English agree more and more about English usage. In fact, distinct forms of English are developing all over the world, eg Hong Kong English, Filipino English, Australian English, Indian English, South African English, British English, American English. On the level of technology and commerce there is growing conformity but in the ordinary language of everyday life one can be assured that different varieties of English will tend to increase, even as local varieties of English have developed in England and in the United States.

Too often people assume that the best translators are fluently bilingual and bicultural, but actually this is not always true. In fact, some people who are constantly shifting back and forth between two languages are not always the best translators because they are not fully sensitive to what is precisely the most fitting expression in a particular receptor language. The best translators are those who are fully sensitive to usage in their own mother tongue and extremely well informed about the cultures of the source language from which they translate. Knowledge of the source culture often proves more important than linguistic expertise.

The most serious mistakes in translation are normally not the result of misunderstanding the language of a text but are the result of inadequate knowledge about and sensitivity to the cultural differences. For example, the first part of the often quoted phrase "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" is often understood as "the government that belongs to the people", but its correct interpretation is "the government that derives its powers from the people".

Since the capacity to translate or interpret seems to be so natural for any bilingual or multilingual person, most people have a relatively low estimation of the knowledge and skill required to be a fully competent translator. If translating seems to require nothing more than knowing two or more languages, then why should translators be paid more than any bilingual office secretary? Perhaps the fact that publishers are willing to put up with poor and misleading translations is another reason why professional translators have often been regarded as nothing more than frustrated authors. But the density of interlingual communicatioin is changing all of this, and the professional translator or interpreter will inevitably play an increasingly strategic role in a world in which people realize that interlingual incompetence is entirely too expensive and dangerous. Wrong translations or interpretations could blow up the world.

By: Eugene A Nida

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