Updated: Dec 18, 2018
Learning a new language is said to be the door to a new culture, to a country or a people, and to their music, their literature, their food, their fashion and their thinking.
Language is a product of interaction between two or more people. In other words, we have developed language in order to communicate with each other and without that need or want to express ourselves to another, language simply would not exist. In different parts of the world, people communicate about different things according to the environment they inhabit, the customs they follow, the beliefs they hold and the routines they engage in. It is for this reason, that some believe that each language is a product of its society, of a particular group of people and therefore of a particular culture.
“Hawaiians have 47 different words for banana.”
Created in context
Franz Boas, a famous anthropologist, claimed the Inuits had potentially hundreds of different words to describe snow. Many did not believe him but more recent research indicates that possibly he was right (Robson, 2013). Similarly, as weather is a favourite topic of conversation for the Scots, and often the bad weather, there are said to be countless expressions employed for making specific distinctions between the types of rain and clouds and so on (Check out some here). Hawaiians apparently have 47 different words for banana whilst one Brazilian tribe employs 29 different terms to describe ants (Jacot de Boinod, 2014). Jacot de Boinod put together a book in 2006 entitled 'The meaning of Tingo' which took words from 154 languages and looked at how they were borne out of their surroundings, a product of their context. Of course, language does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because we create it in response to the things we see, the feelings we feel, the experiences we experience and most importantly, the need to communicate these things to another human. It is for all these reasons that language is said to be an expression of a people, a product of a place, a key to a culture.
Lost in translation
Many of us have seen or know about the film Lost in translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson. Whilst the film is essentially a romance film, it depicts quite well, at least for those unfamiliar with the Japanese language, the sense of feeling lost when the script and words around us are unfamiliar. However, the term lost in translation can also mean something else, for in a way, when we translate from one language to another, we can lose the original sense of the word. For example, for me the word 'cosy' in English depicts a certain scene in my mind that I can only associate with Britain. When I hear the word my mind conjures up the image of a fire inside, the cold outside, the sound of the crackling embers and the feeling of carpet beneath my feet. Perhaps it is the carpet that marks it out as particularly English, as many other countries find the very idea of carpet, as my Italian friends would say, 'schifo' (disgusting). Nevertheless, trying to render this image in my mind with any other word just doesn't cut it. Similarly, 'la sobremesa' in Spanish, translated as 'table-talk' in English just does not have the same impact. The Spanish are famous for their late dinners, for sitting for hours around the table even after the food has long gone cold or been eaten, talking away into the nighttime hours. Quite literally, the term means over the table and for me it evokes a picture of friendship, of discussion and debate, of laughter and love, of good food and wine, of the darkness beyond the window but the warm glow around the table. To know the true meaning of 'la sobremesa' you have to feel it in Spanish and be with the Spanish.
When I studied French and German literature at university, we were often told to cheat and buy the books in English. I did this a few times but I was well aware that it was not them I was cheating in doing this, it was myself for the stories, the characters, the emotions and the events were just not the same in the translated version. How could Shakespeare's 'to be or not to be' be but anything else? How could Brecht's 'Verfremdungseffekt' be any better described in another language? How could Camus' sense of 'l'étranger' be any more accurately evoked without the French? And how could Don Quixote begin with anything other than 'En algún lugar de la Mancha'? The characters, the sense of place, the magic and the mystery are often evoked precisely because of the language in which they are written. Religious texts are said to be the same. It was for this reason we sometimes had students come to us at Language Café to study Arabic so they could read the Quran in its original form, to feel closer to the word of God. The translated versions, though often works of art in themselves, are simply not the same as the real thing. Believe me, Shakira's lyrics are a lot less weird and much more beautiful in Spanish than they are in English.
Language is thus a key to unlock a culture, a literature, a music, a people and a place, often a vehicle through which we have expressed our emotions, described an event, explained a concept which has been produced at a certain moment in time in a certain space by a certain person. Yes, reading or hearing the translation can bring us close to that moment but nowhere near as close as the language it was first expressed in.
de Boinod, J. (2006). The meaning of Tingo: And other extraordinary words from around the world. London: Penguin.
de Boinod, J. (2014). Cultural vocabularies: how many words do the Inuits have for snow? The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/apr/29/what-vocabularies-tell-us-about-culture
Robson, D. (2013). There really are 50 Eskimo words for snow. The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html?utm_term=.363f5613ed65