07 Aug Lost In Translation
Languages are an interesting phenomenon. Simultaneously uniform in their composition yet distinct from one another, both constricted by grammatical rules and vocabulary yet flexible enough to say whatever you want to say in whatever way you want to say it. Languages are both shaped by, and shape, the conditions in which they evolve. It’s for this reason that you’ll find examples in other languages of words and phrases that describe concepts that we simply don’t have in the English language. This is part of what makes learning a foreign language so interesting. The German word ‘Schadenfreude’, for example, is one you may be familiar with, meaning a pleasure that’s derived from another person’s misfortune, a wonderful concept that somehow escaped being boxed up and packaged into being a part of our lexicon. The Indonesian word ’Mencolek’, the act of fooling someone by tapping them on the other side of the shoulder, is another that – to the detriment of the English language – never made the cut.
For anyone who’s in the process of learning a foreign language, you’ll have become aware that there are certain words, phrases, or idioms that, when translated, lose a little something, a little je ne sais quois, a little – as Thierry Henry might usher to you in his dulcet tones through your television screen – vavavoom. We’re referring to the nuanced stuff, the stuff behind the letters (or characters) that you don’t see at first glance, the carefully woven cultural fibres that – over a period of sustained etymological evolution – the word or character has come to represent.
When you first learn a new language, however, you go in blind. You’re in new territory. The pathways previously carved out through years of intimate familiarity with your Mother Tongue are no longer reliable reference points in your new terrain. Nonetheless, as a way of making sense of the new language you’re discovering, it is of course completely natural to take these new words and phrases that you’re learning and attempt to understand them through the lens of your own language.