The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness. – Nikos Kazantzakis


I know that a lot of you out there are bilingual, whether you speak Dutch, German, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, any other language, or 1337 (HAH, TAKE THAT).  Have you ever come across a word in that language that just doesn’t translate to English perfectly?  Of course you have.  All languages, obviously, are not descendants of one sole language, nor do they share the same, exact words.  Many languages used today came about through the Indo-European tongue spoken in early times, but how close are Urdu (APWH?!) and Spanish?  Or French and Russian?  And to compare the Mayan writing system and language with East Asian languages is just ridiculous (they are completely separate and evolved separately).

Now, even if you did have the same word meaning in English and another language, the connotation is something that just can’t be learned except through usage.  Learn as much vocab as you want, simply memorizing vocab will never let you understand the minute difference between horrendous and terrible.  And there IS a difference.

Now, I’ve been complaining about words in different languages and how they don’t mean the exact same thing, but I haven’t hit exactly on my point yet.  Ever heard of the phrase “lost in translation”?  Very true.

Going from one language to another, a word often loses so much of its original connotation that it really doesn’t mean the same thing anymore.  Take the idiom: 고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다 .  Literally translated from Korean, it reads, “In a whale fight, the shrimp’s back explodes/bursts.”  In Korean, it really doesn’t sound this awkward because translation screws up the original intent of this idiom.  Really, this idiom should be translated to more like “When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken,” meaning that when powerful people/countries fight, many innocent lives are lost in the process.  The idiom also derives from the fact that Korea, a small country, is located between two powerhouses: China and Japan.  Explains much.

Denotation, of course, remains the same.  But what if a word in one language doesn’t even have a matching word in another language?  The best that we can do is take a shot in the dark and hope for the best.  And now a snippet of my reader response from last year on The Republic by Plato.

Through translation, some of the original meaning and exact wording of any book is lost, and The Republic is no exception.  For example, take the word thumos, the Greek word roughly translating to “indignation” or “self-preservation”.  Depending on how one translates thumos, Plato’s whole argument on the three parts of a human’s soul is changed.  Like Leontion whose appetite/desire compels him to view the corpses, even though he does not want to, “we often see other instances of a man whose desires are trying to force him to do something his reason disapproves of, cursing himself and getting indignant at their violence” (148, 440a-b).  In this case, indignation makes sense because “indignation” as one of the parts of the soul disapproves when “appetite” overpowers “reason”.  Since a just person “will be just and perform his proper function only if each part of him is performing its proper function,” a person will be just when “appetite”, a wild animal, is subservient to “reason”, the tamer, and “indignation”, the tamer’s sense of duty, is ingrained within “reason” (150, 441d-e).  In using thumos as indignation, however, there is a flaw.  If one were starving and on the verge of death, “appetite” would compel one to eat, but if “indignation” were against the dominance of “appetite”, eating to survive would be considered unjust.  Changing the meaning of thumos to “self-preservation” makes the last scenario work, for eating food would be complying with “reason” and “self-preservation”, not “appetite” since it is just facilitating “self-preservation”.  Insert “self-preservation” into Plato’s perfect society, however, and it makes no sense.  If the driving force of the Guardians was self-preservation, it would not be in the best interest of the community to have such people as leaders, for they would act in the interest of themselves, not the state, going against Plato’s assertion that the Guardians would act for the best of the state.  Thumos is neither “indignation” nor “self-preservation”, but they are the best parallels that English can offer.

Yes, I know that was confusing, but try reading through it again, and you might get a clue as to what I’m saying.  If you still don’t, leave questions in the comments below, and I’ll be happy to answer them.

If you really think about it, it’s quite sad that people of different languages will never understand each other fully.  But I suppose that’s the problem of humanity as well.  How wonderful a Babel fish would be…Douglas Adams had it right.

The Babel Fish […] is small, yellow and leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe.  […] The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. – Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

 – Beyond Apathy


One response

  1. Andy

    “If you really think about it, it’s quite sad that people of different languages will never understand each other fully. ”

    well, this is why we study more languages. :D

    January 4, 2011 at 11:01 PM

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