Meaning of Translation, Translation of Meaning

“Little Manny went picking apples with his grandma”

Manolito went picking manzanas with his abuela.”

If you’re a Trump supporter, the second probably raised your blood pressure a bit.  Why?  If my translations are accurate enough, why do these sentences not elicit exactly the same reaction in people who know enough to understand both?

First it’s important to establish that there is no such thing as an exact synonym.  Even words that have unambiguously the same real-world referents differ in some other quality – frequency, formality, collocations, and etymology.  These influence the ways we choose and use words, although they’re seldom included in formal definitions of them.  Knowing only a rough semantic equivalence between one word and another is a recipe for very unnatural usage, and are a common stumbling block on the way from basic competence in the target language to what most of us would term fluency.

Picking a synonym marked as belonging to another language brings to your sentence the connotations that that language holds with your audience.  In the case of the two sentences that started this post, only the second for me conjures up an image that is washed out along the lines of the Mexico scenes in Traffic.

I guess in my mind, people who speak Spanish live in permanent high contrast.  For some people, the second sentence may remind them of someone they know, or of Ugly Betty, or of street signs in California.

Translation, the power it’s accorded and the ways it’s used, can be a window into ideologies of culture and language.

A common mistake for English-speaking visitors to Japan is assuming that visible English denotes English abilities and an attempt to communicate with English speakers.  In truth, that sign/t-shirt/name of TV show is more often part of the semiotic packaging of that thing for a mostly monolingual Japanese-speaking audience, like when American English speakers ostentatiously call each other “amigo”.  It’s not that whoever named the segment of the evening news “Today’s Watch” intended that to attract an English-speaking audience – they were dressing their product in a particular outfit known to Japanese viewers, with its connotations of modernism, internationalism, and objectivity.  It should go without saying, but nothing else on that show is in English.  English in Japan is more often decoration than content.

A related mistake is for foreign language students to assume that anything recoded in the other language is automatically comprehensible to speakers of that language.  Students of English in Japan are voracious consumers of English-translated Japanese cultural curios, and books on explaining Japan to foreigners inevitably feature vocabulary lists with entries like “rice cake” and “portable shrine”.  In this case the problem is much more fundamental than connotations or register – the real-world referent of that object is probably unknown to the person you’re communicating with.  Hence this commercial from Google is rather misleading,

as translation is probably the last thing that would help someone unfamiliar with what a “rice cake” is in Japan (as opposed to in the US) understand what is going on in that scene.

Translation in this commercial is depicted as if choice of encodings were the only factor affecting understanding of the message, and as if the details of the object pointed to by the word is unaffected by the language it’s given in.  In the world this commercial takes place in, Americans all have a concept of a sticky mass of pounded rice served in the winter but can only comprehend references to it in their own language.  In that world, sushi is also called “Japanese raw fish on vinegared rice” and anime and animation are the same thing.

4 thoughts on “Meaning of Translation, Translation of Meaning

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