Language means culture

These days we see ads which promote devices that can translate up to 43 languages or help learn a foreign language within two weeks, and people believe them. A language is a culture and cannot be transferred automatically. Each language has its own method, grammar, logic, composition and intonation. In German for example, the verbs are at the end of a sentence, whilst others use the verb at the beginning.

Translating words is not the right approach to learn a language. In the Middle East, for example when people insult each other, it is never addressed to the person, but to his sister, mother, ancestors, etc. If you translate these insults to a western language, it will have no meaning and people will not understand the relation between the insult and his relatives, because of the cultural difference.

Often we use vocabulary without even knowing clearly their meaning. The Greeks are quite strong in their language and have created a number of words, such as ‘democracy’ coming from ‘demos’, a village and ‘cratos’, the power – which means power to the people.

When cities became bigger, they created politics, coming from ‘polis’, the larger city such as heliopolis, persepolis, etc. And they created another word which is diplomacy which we use every day. It comes from ‘diplos’, meaning double and ‘matos’ means face. In fact, it means that the person says something and thinks something different. When translated it may sound like a compliment to some, but in reality it is an insult.

Many books are being translated today, but these translations are seldom able to reflect the original text, because their culture is different. Even the grammar of a language is a challenge in itself.

Prosper Merimee, a French writer had made a text called dictation and almost everybody makes minimum 20 mistakes in it. Some presidents and known people have made more than 100 mistakes, because there is an immense subtlety in the French language. If you read Hamlet in Spanish, it reads very different from Shakespeare’s original.

Whilst studying in Belgium in the late 1960s, I learnt Dutch and was officially acting on behalf of the Iranian Embassy as a translator.

One day the police arrested four drug merchants from Iran and I was summoned to go the court for translation. The judge said that he cannot punish them for more than two years unfortunately, because of the law. Ask them, he told me, what will they do after these two years. The boss of the gang told me, “Tell him, uncle, we have done this all our lives and just because we are your guests for two years, we are not going to change.”

I translated it by saying that they were very sorry and regret doing these things and they will start a new life after these two years. The court punished them for two years and at the end of the audience, a Belgian merchant asked me, “Who are you? A lawyer or a translator. I speak Farsi and what you translated had no relation with what he said.” I told him, “Translating is understanding a culture and not replacing a word with another one in the new language. Drug gangs express themselves this way, to say that they are sorry. Without understanding a culture, your translation will be wrongly understood.”

There are some languages that use Latin or Greek words. The words may be the same but the meaning changes dramatically.

Some Far East Languages, such as Chinese or Japanese emphasise on the ending of a sentence which is the peak of the sentence, whilst in the Western world this applies to sentences which are aggressive. So, when we translate, we cannot do it without taking into account the cultural element. Every language you learn multiplies the number of people that you are.

Translating means transferring one culture to another, whilst respecting the original and the translation. The Greeks use ‘paraphrasing’ instead of ‘metaphrasing’, which means translating word by word.

Artificial Intelligence is replacing humans with its algorithms at a great speed, but it will never be able to translate cultures, and humans can be reassured that they will remain on top of the situation.

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