Everyone with a background in linguistics will have heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the theory according to which language affects the way we perceive the world, and even, in its strongest sense, determines the way we categorise what surrounds us. This is also known as linguistic relativism and, as a student, I was so enthralled by it that it became the topic of my dissertation.
Even though a part of me firmly believed in the connection between language and thought, I kept asking myself how translation could ever be possible in a world constrained by the ties of such dilemma. If people who speak different languages perceive and think about the world quite differently, does learning a new language change the way we think? Do bilinguals or polyglots think differently when speaking different languages? Have they got completely sealed-off-from-each-other mental boxes where they store their different languages and, consequently, worlds?
I’m sure you will all agree this stuff can easily start to meddle with your mind. Even if this theory dates back to the 1930s, there’s still little empirical evidence to prove it or disprove it officially. However, a softer approach to linguistic relativism can attempt to explain why some aspects of languages have such relevance when it comes to cross-cultural differences.
Think about colours. It has been demonstrated that we perceive colours differently depending on our mother tongue. For example, in Russian, there are two different words instead of just one for ‘blue’: goluboy, meaning a lighter shade of blue, and siniy, meaning darker blue. Researchers found that Russian native speakers perceive light and dark blue hues differently, as opposed to their English native speaking counterparts. Nonetheless, our mother tongue must not be seen as a prison, which determines and constraints our thoughts, nor should translation be deemed an impossible task. If anything, we could claim that there is no such thing as cross-cultural universality of language.
However, our job as translators –good translators, if I may add – is not to find one-to-one equivalence between words, but to render the same idea so that it makes sense and appears natural to native speakers of the target language. There is an old proverb in Italian, ‘traduttore, traditore’, which states that every translator is a traitor, assuming that the task of translation is somewhat hopeless. Here at GoLocalise, we beg to differ. It takes talent; practice; extensive research; an excellent command of both languages involved; and cultural knowledge – both general and specific to the topics being translated – but you can indeed achieve impressively good translations. That is precisely why simply speaking a second language won’t automatically make you a translator.