This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe.”
3. Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
This above premise contradicts a widespread notion among language enthusiasts. Indeed, when I originally suggested this point, I received several comments by folks who disagreed with it. All over the internet we find lists of “words with no translation” (note that they assume that the target language is English), but the list begs the question of the nature of translation.
“Translate” does not always mean one word’s meaning equates to one word in the target language. The fact that in those lists, the author offers a paragraph that explains the word’s meaning testifies that one can translate the word. The fact that one translates German Fahrvergnügen as “joy of driving”–one word into three–doesn’t mean the word doesn’t translate, but that it does.
This point is important to prevent essentializing cultures, which is the first step to hierarchizing the peoples who belong to those languages and cultures. The concept that some languages are incapable of translating certain words or ideas, has been used to denigrate some languages as “simple” or “primitive” in comparison to others. If I have to say “airplane” as “giant, loud bird” in a language does not mean that the language is “more primitive.” Longer translations do not mean less sophistication. Hence, the fact that the animal called “bat” in English comes out as “flying mouse” (Fledermaus) in German. German is not therefore more primitive than English.
We can see this in languages associated with religion, as well. The Hebrew word hesed חסד cannot translate into a single word in English, but can mean “mercy” or “kindness.” We cannot conclude that Hebrew is therefore more sophisticated in religious matters than Hebrew, or that English-speakers cannot “really” grasp this Hebrew, and so biblical, concept.
I believe that some words feel more “at home” in their native language, but I believe that someone who does not speak that language can understand that word, whatever it might be, once explained. The translation may feel less elegant or more clunky, but the word still translates.