I have already outed myself here as a language geek. This week I came across an interesting and sad article discussing the extinction of many varieties of Jewish speech, a result of the dispersion of their communities into the wider world.
The central assumption behind this article — that every language contains a unique worldview — is one that I strongly support based on my own experience with various languages. I know there are things I can say in Yiddish that I can’t say in English; there are verses in the bible that can never be adequately translated because of the echoes that resound in every word from other verses.
The tragedies described in the Tablet article are also discussed in a book that I love — “Spoken Here” by Mark Abley. It is a great overview of the worldwide problem of dying languages. Aside from the varieties of Jewish speech that emerged because of our long diaspora, the many languages that arose in isolated social groups such as Pacific islanders or that were spoken by groups hounded into literal extinction — such as some aboriginal nations in the Americas — are also vanishing without a trace. Each dying language also brings the death of a conception of the shape of the world, the division of species, the colours of the spectrum, how human activities interact with the natural world, and a hundred other topics which we don’t even recognize because we are, of course, immersed in our own language and its worldview.
Oddly, I also just read an interesting book that takes the opposite point of view–that nothing is untranslatable. It is the delightfully titled “Is That A Fish in Your Ear?” The author, a professional translator, takes the position that there is no such thing as the ineffable. Every word has a meaning; every meaning has a word. It is certainly not a one-to-one relationship and there may be numerous meanings packed into one word which may require numerous words to unpack into another language. But he denies the truism that “you always lose something in the translation.” I found myself disagreeing with his thesis but I admired the collection of supporting data and research that he mustered. This is one of the books where it pays to look at the endnotes! And I have added a number of books from his bibliography to my TBR list.
I think I’ll have more to say on the philosophical question of translation but for now, the sun is speeding westward and I’ve got to scoot.
Yours for more ineffability in everyday life,
“The original is always unfaithful to the translation.”
–Jorge Luis Borges