One of my professors at university, an avant-garde poet by the name of Armand Schwerner, taught us that every translation is really transliteration. The tools for the course included five or so different English dictionaries, as well as numerous translations of foreign-language poetry.
The idea was that every translator approached a literary work differently, and that languages do no translate perfectly from one to the next. To wit: each translation was slightly, or greatly, different. Same work, different translator. Each translator brings their own life experiences to the art of translation, and as far as the science of translation goes, their own understanding of webs of words, and precisely what each word means.
Some words do not translate so easily, as there are no literal one-to-one equivalents. Languages reflect the mindset of its speakers, and not all groups even share the same concepts about life and living, the experiences we have or even the meaning behind such experiences.
Two examples would be the German words “sitzfleisch,” and “gluckschmerz.” There are no precise English equivalents for either, as both express concepts that require multiple English words to express. (These will be address in later articles.)
To further complicate matters, words in English are defined slightly differently, depending on which dictionary one uses. Incredibly, the words we use are very personal to each of us, and meaning is not so clearly defined as one might imagine. This contrasts sharply with computer programming languages, where each “word” in a vocabulary has a defined meaning and syntax for use, instructions that will make a machine do this or that.
Compared to the spoken and written languages shared by various human cultures with their murky lack of distinct clarity and shades of meaning, computer languages are clear and precise.
Computer programmers can approach a task in many different ways; that is, a program that does a specific action might be written completely differently, depending on the programmer. Even so, the meaning of each and every command in the instruction set is fixed, and never open to interpretation. While this is so, a good programmer can utilize a language in novel and creative ways, but the “words” that are used to do so never vary in how the computer processes them.
In contrast, each of us approaches language in ways that are so different, it’s difficult to even explain. Besides meaning, there is emotion. Some of us might have images associated with the word “vacation,” based on past experiences. For one person, this may conjure visions from the distant past, of trips taken to Disney world with family when they were young. Smiles. Fun. Family time.
For another person, the same word may remind them of their honeymoon. Sweet? Joyous? Not at all! That marriage ended in a nasty divorce! And so on. The emotions and connotations we associate with language are completely personal. It’s a wonder any of us can communicate at all, considering all this.
Is each of us in our own “word bubble,” never really conveying to others what we think we are? Is this a form of isolation that none of us bothers to consider, a way that language separates us, rather than bringing us closer together? In a sense, this is undeniably so.
Let’s think of a word, a personal noun, a name most Americans have extremely strong feelings about: Trump. We can all agree that this refers to the present president of the United States. But beyond that, there’s probably little else we can all agree on.
For some, this name evokes images of a great leader, a man of the people. Positive emotions: Love, unity, and strength. For others, the very same name evokes anger and rage. A man who is narcissistic, a liar, someone without concern for anyone but himself and his bank account. Some might even be brought to tears upon hearing this name, tears of joy, or tears of rage. Some might shake with fury, thinking of how much they’d like any other leader at the helm of our country. it’s all deeply personal.
Emotion colors the language completely, though each of our emotions is actually derived from our personal thoughts and past experiences, our own unique interpretation of living on Earth.
So what gives? Of course, one’s personal ideology and understanding of the world is all that’s different in each case. That is all.
How do we ever really communicate, then? Is misinterpretation of one another’s verbally expressed ideas and feelings more common than any of us might imagine? Inevitably, we sometimes miss the point. If each of us is interpreting English so differently, even as native speakers, can you imagine how much more this would be the case when translating poetry, with its rich symbolism and connotation, or even prose, decidedly more dry and direct, from another language?
It’s a mess. That’s why when attempting to understand anything written in another language that we really aren’t familiar with requires ardent effort, wading though various translations, consulting different dictionaries, and comparing, all essential tasks. Google Translate serves a great function, but even a machine with incredibly advanced AI is still just transliterating, based on how it was programmed, and how it’s come to associate webs of words over time, using both algorithms and advanced associative learning.