Uncharted Territory


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How much really gets lost in translation?
MAY 26, 2014


Although berries and beans may be separated by a subtle sound within a language, the larger space between like words in different languages is just as hazardous. Two words that seem to indicate the same state may mean the opposite. In English, the spiritual guy is pious, while the one called spirituel in French is witty; a liberal in France is on the right, in America to the left. And what of cultural inflections that seem to separate meanings otherwise identical? When we have savoir-faire in French, don’t we actually have something different from “know-how” in English, even though the two compounds combine pretty much the same elements?

Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Translation / Transnation)Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Translation / Transnation)
Barbara Cassin、 他



A spectre haunts this book, however.
It is the spectre of Benjamin Lee
Whorf and the theory of linguistic relativism to which he gave his name. Whorf
was an amateur American linguist in the
first half of the twentieth century who be-
came obsessed with the idea that the sys-
tem of tenses in the Hopi language gave
the Hopi a different view of present, past,
and future. (His understanding of Hopi
grammar turns out to have been rudimentary.) Whorfianism came to refer to
a larger idea derived from this notion -
the idea that our language forces us to see
the world a certain way, and that different
languages impose different world views
on their speakers. It’s a powerful idea in
the pop imagination. It sounds right
when you say it.

しかしこの著者は言語によって世界観が規定されるという考え方には批判的です。言葉がなくても感じることができるというのです。別の所では、拷問をenhanced interrogationと婉曲的に言い換えても「拷問」の事実は変わらずに存在すると指摘しています。

In recent years, there's been some
empirical support for mild versions of
the Whorfian idea. Given more color

names - aqua, teal, and periwinkle,
in addition to "blue" - we do seem to respond to more colors, or at least to group
the colors we're shown more finelv. In
other words, having many words for
shades of blue helps you tag the memory more easily and retrieve it faster,
though it doesn't mean that you really
see more shades than the next guy.
(Common sense tells us this already
about, say, wine tasting: when we're
given new terms - there's tar, tobacco,
and rosewater here - we're more likely
to say, "Oh, yeah, I smelled that!" than
"Oh, now I smell something new.") The
names help us sort the steady perception
into manageable bits. Similar studies
have helped rehabilitate Whorf, at least
a little.

この著者はwe are citizens of our languages.と見ているようです。「言語を存在の家」と呼んだ哲学者に近い立場なのでしょうか?いずれにしても僕にはピンときませんが。。。

We are not captives of our tongues,
but we are citizens of our languages. And
citizenship is a broad concept that includes behavior and rituals. We approach
the secret life of another language more
intimately on first approach than after we
have married into it. Learning a new language is like learning a new city: you see
things you’ll never notice, or need, once
you go to live there and are habituated by


Back in the social sciences, there are
studies to support our sense of such
differences - not in cognitive view but
in cultural flavor. Bilingual people, for
instance, seem to narrate stories very
differently in their two languages. Russian
emigres to America seem to use more collectivist nouns when they re speaking
Russian, more individualistic ones in
English; bilingual French-English speakers tend to tell the same stories with an
emphasis on "achievement" in English,
and on "aggression toward peers" in
French. (The English story is "I done it!";
the French version is "And the bastards
tried to stop me.")