When Language Ceases To Have Meaning

I’ve decided to post a translation I did.  It consists of three paragraphs from an editorial in a Yemeni newspaper.  It does not make sense, on the whole.  This translation probably represents about a quarter of the original article.  I’m beginning to develop a theory that translation is impossible between certain languages.  For example:  Arabic to English.  I attribute this to two reasons:

(1)The dictionary meanings of words do not convey how a given word is truly used in a context.  There tends to be some subtlety of meaning, some particular requirement of how a word should be used, which the dictionary just cannot explain.

(2)Writers of different languages not only use entirely different sets of conventions but employ completely different textures of expression.  Arabic seems to have the ability to pile clause upon clause in run-on, nay “runaway” sentences which English could never replicate without severely violating some of its most cherished constitutional pillars…and we’re sure not abrogating those after more than 200 years! 

[Intro / Summary]

The people who are debating [the disputants] about the political rights of women consider that the most [an end-point] that can be arrived at [of what it is possible that he / it ?? arrives at] is the opening [the horizon] of a standing dialogue between the political decision-makers.  This would be in conformity to [it is agreement about] the relative shaping of the existing female scope in situations of authority and [strength of work ??].  [This is] in accordance with what they [??] view as a transformation in a direction of [availability] of new [growth] pertaining to female bearing, as long as they [had proceeded] within the narrowest margins of their political program.


“The Disconcerting Impetuosity in the Direction of Women”

In the shadow of the debate like this or the horizon like that, which they’re sketching for the future of women, the most remote thing that can be predicted at the present time is the disconcerting impetuosity which forces some of the nationally politically strong into riding the wave of keeping away from the animosity about the general direction.  It is a fact that it is necessary to have in mind its [cautions] before the declaration of any document of national work which Yemeni parties and arrangements obtain access to.


[Skip SIX PARAGRAPHS; last paragraph:]

What we hope for is a detailed, logical reading of the Yemeni reality, from whose horizons spring forth clear political visions.  It is defined by its reason better […] political strengthening for the woman, by which it makes her with good thought of the leadership of the brother and president Ali Abdullah Salih who […] its great trust in its expansive and humanistic stage.

1 Comment

  1. acilius

     /  October 9, 2007

    Did that passage make any sense in the original? I don’t doubt that it was grammatically correct, but it seems so elliptical. It reminds me of an intellectual historian called Christian Gauss. Gauss always claimed that the key ideas of a period are never those which are defended in the writings and speeches of the period. Instead, the really important ideas are the ones which are never mentioned explicitly because everyone takes them for granted. So in my ancient civilization class today we were talking about Aristophanes’ ASSEMBLYWOMEN, a comedy in which the women seize control of Athens, then abolish private property, marriage, fatherhood, ancestor worship, and any number of other fundamental structures of Athenian society. Yet the women continue to do all housework and slaves continue to be held in bondage. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Aristophanes even to joke about reforming these institutions.

    I wonder how much of the elliptical style of your editorialist was due to grammatical and semiotic features of Arabic and how much was due to his confidence that he and his target audience shared a great many basic ideas. He needn’t spell these ideas out if everyone he wanted to reach already took them for granted. So even if translation were a simple matter someone unfamiliar with those assumptions would never have entree into the writer’s intellectual world.

    Of course there are those who argue that translation is impossible between any two languages.

    For example, eighteenth century German scientist and thinker Georg Christoph Licthenberg claimed that “There are no synonyms.” He evidently meant that words are never interchangeable in the way that machine parts might be interchangeable. While one nine-volt battery, for example, might work in the same way as another nine-volt battery no matter what device you put it in, words never function that way. Each word covers a semantic field that overlaps with the fields other words cover, but no two words cover perfectly coterminous semantic fields. So, there are many sentences that include the word “synonym” from which you could pull “synonym” out, replace it with “equivalent,” and make the same meaning clear. For other sentences, though, that replacement would produce nonsense. Likewise across languages; the Latin phrase “vocabulum idem declarans” is sometimes an apt translation of “synonym,” sometimes not.

    Sometimes the university demands to know why the vocabulary course I teach is appropriate to the college level, since there are many high-school and middle school courses on “Latin and Greek derivatives” which, like CC 101, use Latin and Greek words as key items to sort English words into lists of paronyms and thus help students follow along as they read a text that includes higher-order vocabulary items. We also have to justify the inclusion of the course in a classical languages program, since the “target language” is apparently English. Our response usually goes something like this:

    My job is to show the students how to use word histories as tools to explore the range of meaning of each English word, beginning with the differences between the English word and its Latin or Greek root. The only teacher equipped to iniate students into this exploration is one with a professional training in Latin and Greek. While both the lower level courses and CC 101 help build students’ vocabulary, CC 101 goes further and helps students to develop a new relationship to language in general. Not only will the successful CC 101 student cease to be intimidated by second-order English vocabulary, but that student will be more aware of the assumptions hidden inside the use of language in his/her own culture.

    The Lichtenberg quote above shows the difference between CC 101 and a grade 7-12 course. Students usually react with shock when I quote Lichtenberg to them, since the classes they took in middle school or high school had rested on the idea that certain English words and certain sequences of letters found within English words simply meant the same thing as the Latin and Greek words of similar shape found in the histories of those English words. The skills we develop in CC 101 essentially involve faculties of judgment which do not mature until early adulthood and which can only be addressed in postsecondary education.

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