"Imperfect" translations

ThomasK

Senior Member
Belgium, Dutch
Dear All,

I would like to discuss "imperfect" equivalents in translations. It is based on the feeling that fairly fundamental concepts like "love", "kindness", do seem to have equivalents in other languages, but my hunch is that they are often imperfect equivalents. They don't render translation impossible, but somehow they may generate associations that are not quite what an author meant or thinks of. Of course few people are aware of that, and it seldoms leads to genuine misunderstandings. Yet, readers/ listeners might miss something "fairly fundamental".

Take for example "love" in English, "liefde/Liebe" in Dutch/ German, "amour" in French. we will mostly understand perfectly, I think, but do we associate the same things with it? "Kindness" and "vriendelijkheid" [lit. friendliness]. It can mean the same, but the former had a deeper (or ...) meaning than the latter.

But do you know of articles or books about this? I suppose it will/ would be dealt with in some branch of semantics; or of translation science, or something the like? Would you have any references?
 
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  • Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Umberto Eco discusses translation at length in Experiences in Translation. At nearly 500 pages in the Spanish translation I found it something like 450 pages too long, but if detailed discussion is what you want it is the book for you.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    It's often pointed out that Greek has four different words for love, compared with only one in English. This made translation of the Bible difficult, because early translators were strong believers of the theory that a given Greek word should always be translated by the same English one.

    The best theoretical framework for this issue that I ever received was in an undergraduate tutorial. It postulated that languages should be seen as alternative maps of the same terrain. In the same way that one area on an administrative map may cover several different areas on a geological map, and vice versa, so no two languages will map in the same way. Here's an example comparing seven words in English and French:
    • Heure can be translated as hour or time...
    • Time covers parts of temps, fois, heure...
    • Temps covers parts of time and weather...
    • Weather covers both temps and météo.
    ... and so forth. These can be drawn as Venn diagrams, and extended across many pages. Even the simplest words, which one might think had a one-to-one relationship, can prove surprising. Éléphant, for instance, does not have the meaning drawing paper measuring 28" by 23" that elephant has.
     

    ThomasK

    Senior Member
    Belgium, Dutch
    Thanks a lot, both of you!
    @Hulalessar: I'll see whether I can have a look at the book at a library.
    @Keith Bradford : extremely interesting contribution, thank you.
    Had not thought of the comparison with Greek, whereas I had heard about those different words indeed (like agapé, filia, etc.). It reminds me of "sin", which has been reduced to one concept, whereas I was told that there are numerous different words in the Bible that have all been translated as "sin". And the "mapping" idea: you are giving perfect illustrations. I must try to find articles about that!
     

    Sardokan1.0

    Senior Member
    Sardu / Italianu
    I've always been puzzled by the the fact that English language only uses one verb to express the concept of "to know".

    The Romance languages have two or three different verbs to express the same concept, but with different shades of meaning, according to the situation.

    These three Latin verbs are used more or less in the same ways in the various Romance languages

    Sapere : (this one exists in all Romance languages except in Sardinian and Romanian)
    1 to taste of
    2 to understand
    3 to have sense

    Cognoscere :
    1
    to become acquainted with or aware of
    2 to recognize
    3 to learn, find to be inquire or examine

    Scire : (this one only survives in Sardinian as "ischíre" and in Romanian as "ști")
    1 to know, to understand

    Italian : sapere / conoscere
    French : savoir / connaître
    Spanish : saber / conocer
    Portuguese : saber / conhecer
    Catalan : saber / conèixer
    Sardinian : ischíre / connòschere
    Romanian : ști / cunoască
     

    PersoLatin

    Senior Member
    UK
    Persian - Iran
    Sapere : (this one exists in all Romance languages except in Sardinian and Romanian)
    1 to taste of
    2 to understand
    3 to have sense

    Cognoscere :
    1
    to become acquainted with or aware of
    2 to recognize
    3 to learn, find to be inquire or examine

    Scire : (this one only survives in Sardinian as "ischíre" and in Romanian as "ști")
    1 to know, to understand

    Italian : sapere / conoscere
    French : savoir / connaître
    Spanish : saber / conocer
    Portuguese : saber / conhecer
    Catalan : saber / conèixer
    Sardinian : ischíre / connòschere
    Romanian : ști / cunoască
    Which one covers, to know in "I know him" please? You might have mentioned it but I can't quite see it.
     

    Sardokan1.0

    Senior Member
    Sardu / Italianu
    Which one covers, to know in "I know him" please? You might have mentioned it but I can't quite see it.
    Those verbs derived from "Cognoscere"

    While the verbs derived from "Sapere or Scire" can be translated as "to know something or to be able to do something"

    I know him (verb "cognoscere")
    Italian - (io) lo conosco
    Sardinian - (eo) lu connosco

    To know a gossip (verbs "sapere / scire")
    Italian - sapere un pettegolezzo
    Sardinian - ischíre unu trobeddu

    I can swim (verbs "sapere / scire")
    Italian - (io) so nuotare
    Sardinian - (eo) isco nadare
     

    ThomasK

    Senior Member
    Belgium, Dutch
    Interesting issue. The point might be: are these different forms of knowing or do they only depend on the object?

    We have the distinction too, and there the basis seems to be semantic: kennen (cognoscere) from the outside mainly, things & persons (though we can say: "Ik ken hem niet echt/ I don't really know him", which suggests that this kennen may have to do with deep knowledge….Weten (sapere) refers to informationt, seems more abstract...
     

    Sardokan1.0

    Senior Member
    Sardu / Italianu
    I think that you are right, the verb "cognoscere" has to do with "to know someone" or "to have a deep knowledge of something" While "Sapere / Scire" seem to be more abstract or to be related to the concept of "to be able to do something"
     

    PersoLatin

    Senior Member
    UK
    Persian - Iran
    Persian has:
    1) ŝnâs (cognate with Know/Cognoscere) for knowing 'someone', so âŝn-â means 'acquaintance', ŝenâs-âŷ means 'identification'
    2) dân for knowing 'something', so dân-eŝ means knowledge.

    ŝnâs is used when you have personal/intimate knowledge about someone , if you recognise someone but don't know them personally you'd use dân, for example when you have seen them before. ŝnâs is also used for deeper knowledge about a specific topic, e.g. kar-ŝenâs/expert
     
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    ThomasK

    Senior Member
    Belgium, Dutch
    I suggest we do not go into this topic here. I'll ask our Mod to detach #6 to All languages, or to this specific thread on savoir/connaitre (know), so that we can focus on other topics that betray different interpretations/ translations of one concept... I hope you will understand.

    Another topic could be the variation between "cost" and "take", but I am not sure. I mean: FRA "Ça prend du temps"/ ENG "It takes time" vs. NED "Het kost tijd"/ GER "es kostet Zeit". I am wondering whether deep down we refer to the same thing. Our version seems more painful, in the sense of "expensive". We could say: "Het neemt veel tijd in beslag" (confiscate, literally) [also in German perhaps: beschlagnahmen), which is still more unpleasant. But it might not constitute real diffence.
     
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    OBrasilo

    Senior Member
    Brazil, Brazilian Portuguese
    AndrasBP said:
    It's the same in Russian.
    The verb znat' (знать) is used both for "sapere" and "conoscere".
    Slovenian, on the other hand, has 3 words: poznati "to know someone" or "to know something well", vedeti "to know", znati "to know how to do something".
     
    Just wondering: have you ever thought you missed one of those three if you only have "know" in English?
    That's a relevant question. All of temps, vegada, hora and estona can translate as "time" in English, but I've never felt I'm "missing" something by only having one word. As long as you know how each word overlaps each other, you're fine.

    But I do think many words or expressions are hard to translate from one language to another. In fact I have a 100-odd list of English words and expressions I miss when I speak Catalan. I'm no translator, but I guess you just have to accept you're losing nuances that can't be properly conveyed. Thing is, a monolingual speaker would never feel like he's missing something. You can't miss what you've never had, I guess.

    So, in a sense, I do believe language makes you conceptualize the world in a certain way. Not in general (Does German make you harsher than French? What about Russian? All of this is BS), but if some concepts are treated differently in different languages, you can obviously view them differently (or be totaly unaware of their existence). For example "dog-whistling" is a common political metaphor in English but I didn't see the need for a term until I learned the word. Probably, thanks to a term being existent, English-speakers are more aware of it than Catalan- or Spanish-speakers.
     

    ThomasK

    Senior Member
    Belgium, Dutch
    Interesting contribution, thanks. Interesting point at the end: something comes into focus, I think, when there is a specific word for that. So in learning a language one might be enlarging one's scope.

    But you are right: we often do not miss the word if we don't have it. But of course I am asking a very specific question: what can a reader miss even if s/he gets the main meaning quite well? The problem could be put in these terms, I think: there are no universal concepts, at least not in the narrow sense, and therefore it can be (!) interesting to explore those from time to time, just to see what we have missed, whereas we have clearly got the message. Communication is more than what you say, also what is implied. Or something the like. That can be quite enriching and sometimes complete the overall picture...

    But is there anyone who could refer to articles where that kind of topics is dealt with. I could refer to a Dutch Bible translation where the author has endeavoured to translate as literally as possible: De Naardense Bijbel...
     

    PersoLatin

    Senior Member
    UK
    Persian - Iran
    dog-whistling
    I agree some nuances may be lost going from one language to another but I find for example that news, technical articles/jargon etc., in English, are as much of a challenge to an average native speaker as they are to a non native.

    English can make verbs from literally any noun and to dog-whistle is another example. Dog-whistle can be translated to 'coded-message' in any language, but the reasons behind the choice of the term will not be obvious even to the natives if they hear it for the first time out of context, however a sheep farmer can work it very quickly. But you don't always need that extra information in order to translate/interpret a sentence accurately, especially when/if you can replace those with local equivalents.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    We are getting into the realm of asking: Can you have an idea if your language does not have a word for it?

    We can distinguish two cases.

    One is where the mapping between languages does not correspond but context sorts it all out without any loss of meaning. If your translation is what a native speaker would say then there is no real problem. So, English table can mean a piece of furniture or a format for setting out information. If translating into Spanish you need to use mesa for the former and tabla for the latter.

    The other is where a language has two or more words which describe the same thing, but each has different overtones. In relation to people, English slim and thin describe the same quality, but the former implies approval whilst the latter is more neutral. If the target language only has one word to describe people who are the opposite of overweight, the translator has a bit of a problem. This does not mean though that speakers of the language cannot conceive of someone who is attractive and not overweight and, if they wish to express that, cannot do so.
     
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