Translation problems in reference to thought and reality

Seminar Paper 2007 14 Pages

Speech Science / Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Translation Problems in Reference to Thought and Reality
2.1. Translation Problems
2.1.1. Types of Phrasal Semantic Mismatch
2.1.2. Types of Lexical Semantic Mismatch
2.1.3. Forms of Addressing and Self-Reference
2.2. Relativism versus Universalism
2.2.1. Relativism
2.2.2. Universalism
2.3. Berlin and Kay’s Investigation of Color Terms

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Everybody who is seriously acquiring a language different from their mother tongue (L2-acqusition) has to manage different problems in translating satisfactorily lexemes, phrases and sentences from one language system to another. Learners have to take into account both the denotative and the connotative meaning of the lexemes of the L2-language. Many phrases have to be utilized in fixed forms and are as arbitrary and conventional as words; therefore, they have to be learned like the vocabulary. Furthermore, there is seldom a semantic equivalence between two lexemes of different languages. Taking these facts into account, the structuralism’s hypotheses of perceiving every individual language as a system of its own, where each element has significance because of its relation to the other elements in the system, seems convincing (Foley 1997: 105; Loebner 2002: 153).

The most crucial representatives of relativistic theories (based on structuralism), like Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, and their supporters believe in a direct connection between language (which conveys the fundamental ideas of a culture) and thought. They deduce from this hypothesis that because of the differing language systems every language culture has a unique worldview. Indeed, there are problems in perfectly transferring meaning by translation from one language system to another. Yet, can this phenomenon be perceived as evidence for the arbitrariness of lexicalization? Affirming the relativistic hypotheses proven to be true, will we have to negate automatically the universalistic assumptions of rational linguists, such as Noam Chomsky and Anna Wierzbicka, that all languages obey the same principles (Foley 1997: 81-82; Loebner 2002: 161)?

My research in the raised linguistic problems will deal with an exploration of different kinds of translation problems first. Afterward, I will demonstrate how these problems are connected to the theories of relativism and universalism, respectively, and discuss the effect that Berlin and Kay’s investigation of color terms had on relativistic and universalistic assumptions. Finally, I will give a summarizing conclusion.

2. Translation Problems in Reference to Thought and Reality

2.1. Translation Problems

2.1.1. Types of Phrasal Semantic Mismatch

In any language, there are always particular restrictions for the way of combining words to carry meaning – lexemes are not randomly put together (Baker 1996 [1992]: 46). Collocations and idioms are obvious examples of this fact. Collocations are words with a tendency to be combined regularly in a flexible way that sounds naturally for a native speaker (ibid: 47). For instance, when butter goes bad the English describe this it as rancid, whereas they use addled for eggs in the same situation (ibid). Yet, addled butter or rancid eggs are unacceptable expressions. The crucial fact is that the meaning of a word often depends on its association with specific collocations, e.g. the different senses of dry in dry clothes (free from water), dry wine (sour tasting) and dry book (theoretical, emotionless) (ibid). Therefore, the meaning of a collocation is not the sum of the meanings of its individual elements – collocation patterns have unique implications.

While collocations can be quite flexible in their forms and their components keep a certain individual sense, idioms allow only a little or no variation in form (ibid: 63). Often the meaning of such fixed phrases cannot be deduced from their elements (ibid). Thus, excuse my French does not stand for ‘a Frenchman’s apology for the utilization of his mother tongue because of his inability in utilizing English vocabulary’ but for ‘somebody just uttered something vulgar and makes fun about this’. Such an idiom is as arbitrary and conventional in its meaning as a lexeme. This may trigger translation problems, because the target language may have no equivalent conveying the same sense as the translated expression, e.g. because the phrase is culture-specific like the formulae Merry Christmas and say when (ibid: 68).

To sum up, translation of both collocations and idioms needs to take into account the idiomatic implication instead the individual meaning of components. More or less fixed phrases have to be learned to be recognized as well as interpreted and translated in a correct way (ibid: 53, 65). Knowing the translated but also the target language structurally, grammatically and idiomatically as close to a native speaker as possible is necessary to find equivalences for culture-specific phrases. Yet, even lexemes as such can be deficient in having identical terms – there are different types of mismatch as well.

2.1.2. Types of Lexical Semantic Mismatch

As raised in the introduction, two lexemes of different languages seldom have the same over-all meaning – types of mismatch are somewhat the rule than the exception (Loebner 2002: 154). For research in this area, a comparison of European languages with Japanese is suitable, because the norms of usage of the Japanese language system contrast immense from those of the European ones. Yet, the modern Japanese culture is likewise to the European’s (at least more comparable than with the behavior of nature tribes).

Following this perception, Sebastian Loebner illustrates different mismatch-types between English and Japanese, which I will shortly discuss (ibid: 154-155).

As demonstrated in (1), one language may have only one word where another has two or even more:

(1) English mouse rat finger toe water

Japanese nezumi yubi mizu yu

>cold w.< >hot w.<

(Loebner 2002: 154)

Where English specifies a certain kind of rodent either a mouse or a rat, the Japanese nezumi includes both of these likewise looking animals . Confusing for Europeans, the lexeme yubi refers to a finger as well as a toe. On the other side, Japanese provides different roots for a separation of water, mizu and yu, depending on the liquid’s temperature, whereas English expresses these notions by phrases involving the single root water.

Additionally, Loebner demonstrates that even basic and universal concepts, such as >EAT< and >DRINK<, convey different lexicalizations in different languages. In English as well as in Japanese there are superficially comparable lexemes:

(2) English eat drink

Japanese taberu nomu

(Loebner 2002: 154)

Yet, a closer examination of the lexicalizations of these lexemes demonstrates crucial differences between them. In English, the utilization of eat and drink depends on the consistence of the substance that is consumed – solids are eaten whereas liquids are drunk (ibid: 154). On the converse, nomu is used for liquid as well as for solid substances such as pills (ibid: 155). The crucial criterion for its utilization is not the consistence of what is consumed yet the way of consuming – something has to be swallowed directly without chewing (ibid).

Besides, there even may be no corresponding term of one language in the lexicon of another likewise to phrases, e.g. triggered by a culture’s deficiency of certain plants, animals or social institutions (ibid). Loebner states that this phenomenon can also be observed in shared semantic areas (ibid). For instance, the Japanese lexeme hataraku is comparable to the English verb to work (ibid). Yet, hataraku covers only physical work and is unacceptable for intellectual activities whereas to work is (such as studying semantics) (ibid). Despite this and the other illustrated mismatch problems, there also are difficulties in translating terms of addressing and self-reference because of high cultural influence.



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Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel – English Department
Translation Basics Applied Semantics




Title: Translation problems in reference to thought and reality