Why is great translation so hard? Any bilingual can transcribe a basic sentence in a different language: “It’s Monday,” “The sun rises from the east,” “I’m hungry,” etc. But complex sentences are different. The issue lies in language itself. On the one hand, language is a means of communicating information, which is why a basic list of phrases is good enough for a holiday. On the other, language also evolves alongside the people shaping it. Language is informed by culture, context, and history. Understanding a language is understanding a different way of thinking.
Language is a Culture
Arabic, a poetic language, boasts fifty words for love; for obvious reasons, it also has hundreds of words for “camel.” Italian has different words for different kinds of eateries (such as osteria and trattoria) and food types, while English limits itself to “cafe” and “restaurant”; in its modern incarnation, Italian is heavy with Catholic allusions, which has also meant that the most grievous Italian swearwords are often blasphemous. These patterns give us information on the culture creating the language.
Bilingual readers of this blog might sometimes find themselves unable to solve a problem when thinking of it in one language, only to hit upon a solution in another. A symptom of this gap is trying to communicate a concept that exists in one language but being unable to translate it; irony is easy enough to outline in English, but there’s still no equivalent for it in Arabic (سخرية, the word often used, is closer to “parody” or “mockery”). Yet there’s more to it. Because language is a superpower.
Language Changes Your Perception of Time and Space
Russian and Turkish speakers see more colors. This is an absurd-sounding claim. Most people perceive color by absorbing light into their eyes’ photoreceptors. Yet the process behind breaking down those colors, according to studies, is affected by language. One study confirmed that giving a color a name made it distinct, which, yes, is why interior designers actually can differentiate off-white from eggshell.
Russian—which, like Turkish, has different names for different shades of blue—allows their speakers to make-out different hues more easily because the language has different names for different shades of (for example) blue. It gets weirder.
Mandarin is read top to bottom and then right to left, which reveals something about its perception of progress—where something starts and then ends. English thinks of time as being along a path: you put a bad experience behind you, and because you have a few things coming up you’re hoping things will work-out in the end.
Mandarin, though, conceives of time vertically; spatial morphemes render “up” has something that’s already happened, whereas the future is always “down.” A study conducted at Stanford University found that Mandarin speakers found it difficult to answer questions about time when the objects were arranged horizontally (“Is June before July?”) simply because Mandarin doesn’t render these concepts in this way. In being fluent in Mandarin, their perception of space shifted. It gets even weirder.
In English and Arabic, we can easily render the effects of time. Things did, will, could, could have, will have, would, and would have. Indonesian dispenses with these. A study at (again) Stanford University had people look at pictures of a man about to kick a ball, kicking the ball, and having kicked it. In not compiling time into their thinking—Indonesian quite often simply describes all three pictures as “Man ball kick”—Indonesian speakers had much more difficulty later recalling the differences between the three pictures.
In other words, because the language doesn’t account for time, Indonesian speakers don’t account for it, either. Language itself dictates thought.
Language is Always Evolving
Because language is so closely tied to culture and we’re more connected than we’ve ever been, concepts have become much more readily exchanged. Arabic has yet to find words for concepts like “intersectionality,” nor for neologisms like “geobragging,” “spam,” or “to 404.” Translating these requires grokking (sorry) them.
Similarly, English doesn’t have the equivalent of phrases like “tu’burni” (تقبرني), a desire that one’s love outlive them, or even common expressions like “na’eeman” (نعيماً), told to someone to compliment aa haircut.
Technical terminology is a different world. Untrained professionals have a hard time distinguishing “adjustment” from “amendment,” or translating legal subtleties like “contract” and “agreement,” or “justification” and “excuse.” You’ll need a foot in both worlds.
Luckily, Gibran is here to help. We handle financial translation, technical translation, legal translation, and more, making use of an array of trained professionals with a passion for language and the cultural context needed to properly convey intent. If you want to be sure your work receives proper Arabic and English translation, maintaining its spirit, rhythm, and style, talk to Gibran today.
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