Sunday, August 25, 2013

Why having "no word for X" can matter

The nice thing about French, from an English speaker's perspective, is that its lexical structure is so much like that of English that you can often translate a sentence without having to think much about what it means. Let's try this sentence, for example:

"Process and Reality presents a system of speculative philosophy which is based on a categorical scheme of investigation designed to explain how concrete aspects of human experience can provide a foundation for our understanding of reality."

Without seriously contemplating whatever it is that the author of this sentence is trying to say, I can render this in French as:

"Procès et Réalité présente un système de philosophie spéculative qui est fondé s'appuie sur un plan catégorique d'investigation destiné qui vise à expliquer comment des aspects concrets de l'expérience humaine peuvent fournir une base pour notre compréhension de la réalité."

No doubt there are some issues with this translation – my French has a long way to go. (fixed) But producing it was a relatively easy, almost mechanical task. Translating it into Standard Arabic I have to think a good deal more about the sense of each word (and also have less confidence in the results since I don't own a philosophy-focused dictionary) but I can still readily make it nearly word-for-word:

"كتاب السيْر والواقع يقدم نظام فلسفة نظرية مبني على مشروع فحص تصنيفي معمول ليفسر كيف يمكن لبعض الجوانب الملموسة لتجربة الإنسان أن تعطينا أساسا لفهم الواقع.
("kitābu s-sayri wa-l-wāqiʕ yuqaddimu niđ̣āma falsafatin nađ̣ariyyatin mabniyyun ʕalā mašrūʕi faħṣin taṣnīfiyyin li-yufassira kayfa yumkinu li-baʕđ̣i l-jawānibi l-malmūsati li-tajribati l-'insāni 'an taʕṭiyanā 'asāsan li-fahmi l-wāqiʕi.")

Now suppose I want to translate this into Algerian Arabic. What am I going to do about words like "process", "reality", "speculative", "concrete"? Plenty of Algerians have studied such notions, but they've done so in French or in Standard Arabic. What I would normally do in such cases is simply substitute a Standard Arabic word wherever I can't think of one that would count as Algerian Arabic, yielding something like this:

"كتاب السير والواقع يقدّم واحد النظام تاع الفلسفة النظرية اللي مبنية على مشروع تصنيفي تاع الفحص، خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش الجوانب الملموسة نتاع تجربة الإنسان تقدر تعطيلنا أساس باش نفّهمو الواقع."
("ktab əs-sayr w-əl-wāqiʕ yqəddəm waħəd ən-niđ̣am taʕ əl-fəlsafa n-nađ̣aṛiyya lli məbniyya ʕla məšṛuʕ təṣnifi taʕ əl-fəḥṣ, xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš əl-jawanib əl-məlmusa ntaʕ təjribt-əl-'insan təqdər təʕṭi-lna 'asas baš nəffəhmu əl-wāqiʕ.")

On the other hand, what a lot of other educated Algerians would do is something more like this, filling in all the gaps from French:

"كتاب بروسي إي رياليتي يقدّم واحد السيستام تاع لا فيلوزوفي تيوريك اللي مبنية على أن پلان كاتيڤوريك دانفيستيڤاسيون خدمُه باش يفسّر كيفاش ليزاسپي كونكري نتاع ليكسبيريانس إيمان يقدرو يعطولنا إين باز باش نفّهمو لا رياليتي."
("ktab pRose e Reạlite yqəddəm waħəd əs-sistam taʕ lạ-filozofi teoRik əlli məbniyya ʕla ãn plõ kạtegoRik d-ãvestigasyõ xədmu baš yfəssər kifaš lizạspe konkRe ntaʕ l-ekspeRyõs üman yəqqədru yəʕṭu-lna ün bạz baš nəffəhmu lạ-Reạlite.")

Neither of these rather macaronic passages would be comprehensible to any monolingual speaker of Algerian Arabic; they're essentially parasitic on the speaker's knowledge of Standard Arabic or French. Granted, probably most Algerian Arabic speakers are not really monolingual; but even then, there is no guarantee that a speaker who understands one version will understand the other. If you really wanted to produce a consensus-friendly Algerian Arabic version, that a monolingual speaker would understand – then, basically, you need to completely rephrase the whole sentence to explain these notions in advance. And before I can do that, I need a clearer notion of what the writer means by things like "concrete aspects of human experience". My job has morphed into something that's not so much translation as totally rewriting, and frankly, for a sentence like this I'm not even willing to try it.

Now suppose you're dealing with a language none of whose speakers have ever studied academic philosophy, or for that matter gotten into high school. You can no longer expect to get away with the dodge of code-switching at appropriate moments. How much effort do you think it would take to translate this sentence, compared with the amount of effort it takes to translate it into French? What effect do you think this would have in practice on the cross-cultural transmission of such ideas?

That's one reason why having "no word for X" can matter. The absence of the word – or more precisely, of a fixed expression for it – impedes translation, and hence impedes the transmission of foreign ideas to monolingual speakers. And fixing the problem isn't just a matter of inventing or borrowing a word; to be able to do either, you need to have formulated the corresponding concept, and, in the case of abstract words like these, that presupposes putting a lot of speakers into an originally foreign system of education, with a lot of associated time and expense and all-round hassle.

(Chain of thought prompted by How would you say that in Derja?).


John Cowan said...

Well, so it does, but the exact same is true for native speakers of English. I'm a native speaker, and so (let us say) is the fellow sitting next to me on the subway, but I'd be extremely hard put to it to explain this sentence to him, unless indeed he happened to be a (present or former) graduate student in some appropriate branch of learning, or an extreme autodidact like myself. And explaining it to my very intelligent five-year-old grandson is simply out of the question.

To comprehend such a sentence, no matter how paraphrased, requires going through an educational process involving, exactly as you say, "a lot of associated time and expense and all-round hassle". No doubt it's much worse if your native culture has no tradition of this at all, but I think it's a matter of degree, not of kind. And one of the steps in the process is that you have a huge new vocabulary to learn, most of which is going (in most cases) to be either borrowed or calqued from some other language.

For another light on this, you might want to read Ursula Le Guin's 1986 Bryn Mawr commencement address, which is about the mother tongue and what Le Guin calls the father tongue, and can be read as a demonstration that all languages are diglossic, even (American) English. It's when the diglossia is unified, as in some people and some works of art, that the truly native tongue (if you will, the voice of the Unfallen) can be heard.

Nadia Ghanem said...

That's a really tough sentence to have begun an investigation of 'no word for x' in Derja or Arabic, and thank you for the mention :)

I wonder, what is translation? Is it first slotting words in the correct place of the target language - and thus having the words to place in the first place - and then check the idea has come across, or the reverse?

I study Akkadian where a large bulk of the documents we have are works of ancient scribes 'translating'. It has always been fascinating to me that words were not translated as in A = B, but as in A lies within a range.

I wonder if the concept (and word itself) 'translation' is ever appropriate to describe what we do when we, well, translate. For, really, we interpret.

If find marketing to be the best example of successful translations because they target their audience and slide register to fit a single source.

Wasn't translation always tied to its target audience, an audience of native speakers but a formatted audience (I prefer to use formatted, not schooled/taught).

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: I agree that "it's a matter of degree, not kind" – in a sense, technical vocabularies are second languages to us all. However, the absence of such a vocabulary in the mother tongue makes for problems when people with a common mother tongue but different educational languages meet. (Having at one point been a speaker of English and Algerian Arabic but neither Standard Arabic nor French, I can confirm that!) To the extent that these words aren't used enough within the speaker community to get borrowed, their absence also indicates a community in which a monolingual person can't just "pick up" these concepts by listening to intellectuals' conversations, as English speakers often can.

Nadia: I think marketers have the advantage of only needing to convey a rather conceptually simple message: "buy this!" Certainly translation is facilitated by assuming a trained audience; but people who want to transplant a skill across cultures, and educators in general, have the more difficult task of conveying their message to an untrained audience.

David Marjanović said...

No doubt there are some issues with this translation – my French has a long way to go.

In particular, you wrote destiné instead of dessiné. (That may still be too literal, but I'm not sure.)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That was intentional – destiné à means "intended to". However, it may be too un-literal, or poorly phrased for some other reason – I haven't checked it with a native speaker.

Etienne said...


1-As a native speaker of French who has some experience of translation, I'd recommend "qui vise à" instead of "destiné à", and "qui s'appuie sur" instead of "qui est fondé sur". Still, your basic point remains.

2-Can any reader out there (Bulbul?) offer a translation of the passage into Maltese? My impression is that the distribution of Italian- and English-origin vocabulary items in the Maltese translation would be very reminescent of the distribution of the French-origin words in the "Gallicized Algerian Arabic" version.

John Cowan said...

I wonder, what is translation? Is it first slotting words in the correct place of the target language - and thus having the words to place in the first place - and then check the idea has come across, or the reverse?

The reverse, beyond all doubt, when it is done with the intention of re-creating the original in the new language, and not simply to provide a key or guide to the original (also an honorable intention). Here is what the translators of the 1611 English version of the Bible (the King James Version) had to say:

Another things we think good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere, have been as exact as they could that way. Truly, that we might not vary from the sense of that which we had translated before, if the word signified that same in both places (for there be some words that be not the same sense everywhere) we were especially careful, and made a conscience, according to our duty. But, that we should express the same notion in the same particular word; as for example, if we translate the Hebrew or Greek word once by purpose, never to call it intent; if one where journeying, never traveling; if one where think, never suppose; if one where pain, never ache; if one where joy, never gladness, etc. Thus to mince the matter, we thought to savour more of curiosity [a negative term, roughly 'monstrousness'] than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the Atheist, than bring profit to the godly Reader. For is the kingdom of God to become words or syllables? why should we be in bondage to them if we may be free, use one precisely when we may use another no less fit, as commodiously?

David Marjanović said...

1-As a native speaker of French who has some experience of translation, I'd recommend "qui vise à" instead of "destiné à", and "qui s'appuie sur" instead of "qui est fondé sur".

Larger point: French avoids the passive voice to an extent you'd never expect not just from English, but even from German – which, like French, has an impersonal pronoun and reflexive constructions.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks for the corrections! Yes, it would be nice to see the Maltese version...

ferrer said...

Interesting post, thank you very much. On the subject of untranslateability, but on a less academic note and limited to German, Spanish and English you might find worht a browse.

Anonymous said...

It's not just a matter of degree/intellect level. It kind of is for this particular paragraph, but most Arabic dialects have much more constraint vocabulary compared to your typical everyday English, French, or standard Arabic.
Not much comes to mind now but 'sarcasm, pretentious, abuse, sense of humor, suspense, patronizing, condescending, anticipation, spin-off, cliff hanger, sanctimonious, sexist'. These are some awfully common words/phrases that, even as a native a speaker, I can't find a counterpart for in my native dialect, or even in standard Arabic for some.

Anonymous said...

While Maltese seems to prefer loanwords, Berber and Arabic use neologisms. For Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian... Arabic what do you think is the best solution for not having a word for X? Would neologisms (such as we can see them in Berber) solve the problem (i.e. allow monolingual people to understand the [basic] meaning of the sentence?)? Or are we creating a new problem like that and borrowing is a better idea?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Berber neologisms are frankly a disaster: there's no point in coining neologisms much faster than your teaching and media infrastructure can spread them, especially when the way you've constructed them makes them incomprehensible to any speaker who hasn't already learned them. A good neologism should be as easy as possible to understand and remember. In some cases, that means a nice transparent compound that respects the language's ordinary morphology. But in a lot of cases, that's more likely to be a loanword, and your choice is whether to take it from Fusha or from French.

John Cowan said...

In the absence of Bulbul, I went for Google Translate. Their idea of the Maltese is:

"Il-Proċess u r-Realtà jippreżentaw sistema ta 'filosofija spekulattiva li hija bbażata fuq skema kategorika ta' investigazzjoni mfassla biex tispjega kif aspetti konkreti tal-esperjenza tal-bniedem jistgħu jipprovdu bażi għall-fehim tagħna tar-realtà."

Which pretty clearly shows that for all its Arabic base Maltese is a European language.

Mary Kuhner said...

My partner and I had 100K lines of computer code that did not quite work. We tracked the fundamental problem down to the fact that the program made extensive use of two different, but very closely related, concepts--a bead on a string and the string segment between two beads, basically, only in genetics--and *only had one word for both of them.* We finally invented two separate terms and renamed everything accordingly. We found 5 or 6 bugs during the renaming and I'm positive were saved from creating many more bugs of that kind. So I am easily convinced that having a word for X matters.