The Second Version

22/04/08

Difficulties of Translation

I am a native Italian speaker; I studied English for years and lived nearly four years in London (and avoided hanging around with Italians all the time); over there, I've been exposed to Chinese and Japanese (this one, also through anime) languages and I also attended a beginner-level Arabic course. And recently I visited Indonesia.

So I can tell I've learnt a thing or two about languages. Yes, some of them are very difficult to learn as a matter of pronunciation, and can also have a script with little if anything to do with our Latin alphabet. Some languages have intricate grammar (Italian) while others have a barebone one. Indonesia has adopted Latin alphabet even if they speak language(s) with a very different root - but with lots of borrowed words. Things can become quite complex.

However, it relatively easy to translate literally from one language to another, but the result if often unsatisfactory - see the hilarious outcomes of Engrish.

What is most difficult to translate are the concepts and ideas behind and beyond words.

Languages are ultimately utilitarian, because they satisfy the need to communicate. The language of, for example, a tribe of hunter-gatherers does not require the same richness and complexity of that of a populace with developed philosophy and science/technology*.

But there is more to languages that than simple utilitarianism: they also are a result of the culture and history of the people speaking them. It is not by accident that various dictators and conquerors tried to impose one single common language upon their subjects - because it's the first step to eradicate the old culture and replace it with a new one (the positive application of this concept is to require immigrants to learn the language of their host country; this is not meant to destroy their identity but to provide a shared base).

In order to fully understand a language, one also needs to know the culture associated to it. A famous example is the "baseball metaphor": baseball is hugely popular in the USA, so that every american knows what the bases are - and more important, what being in one base or the other means in terms of the game.

But in Italy, baseball is a niche sport, barely known to the general public (I have been informed that the Indian immigrants here have opened cricket grounds... talk about a niche sport). Here, what kids play in the streets and parks and everyone knows about is soccer (US) or football (GB), or calcio. So, the translator of a Stephen King book (I think it was Four Seasons) ditched the literal baseball metaphor for a soccer-related one, which conveys better the intention of the author

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