Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just the facts

I've been reading, for my linguistics/semantics class, about concepts that are ingrained in American (or English, Australian, Russian, Japanese...) culture, which we suppose are universal. Concepts like "freedom" are rooted in American culture and history, and though dictionaries may offer direct translations of the word, the chance that the words completely correspond is slim. American "freedom" implies non-interference, while Russian "svoboda" has a somewhat different emphasis--you cannot speak of svoboda from something, the way you can speak of, for example, "freedom from interruption." Svoboda has a spacial connotation, and it can be given, whereas you cannot give someone freedom. Clearly, translating these involves adding certain connotations and removing others. Understanding that these two words do not mean the same thing, even when they are translated into one another, is crucial to understanding what is meant. There are many similar examples, some of which affect communication between cultures in a way that leads to misunderstanding.

Applying this to literature (as you do), one wonders about reading books in translation. Something I read for class about diminutive name suffixes used several examples from Tolstoy. In Russian, there are lots and lots of possible diminutive forms of names, all with different connotations. In English, of course, diminutives are usually used mostly for children. Timmy eventually grows up and becomes Tim. Russian diminutives don't imply childishness. They are also generally untranslatable. So when we read War and Peace in English, we are missing the shades of meaning implied by diminutive names. There are no doubt many other nuances we miss, and many of our own cultural associations we add. I'd argue that a vast amount of what we love about books is the nuance.

Have you ever noticed some meaning missed when reading translations? I don't know that I've read enough translations, or any recently enough. And it's more in what we don't realize we're missing, I suppose. But what cultural assumptions do we bring to reading that make what we read seem more or less realistic?

If you want your illusions about universal truths completely blown to shreds, read something by Anna Wierzbicka. You know all those English expressions like "as a matter of fact", "hard facts", "just the facts," "in fact"...? We love facts. Yeah, all these expressions don't translate prettily. Nobody else talks about fact like we do.

1 comment:

hschinske said...

"Freedom? That is a worship word. Yang worship. You will not speak it."



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