Arguing with Myself: Of Language Differences and Translation

EOP or English-Only Policy is a very common thing in companies here in the Philippines. It strictly requires employees to communicate in English when they are on the work floor. This is actually good; however, I was recently told by a good friend who works in a BPO company that their EOP is somewhat unreasonable. Why is that? For one thing, their trainer mentioned that every word in Bisaya can be translated to English, that they have a direct English equivalent, much to the point that even the local dish tuslob buwa (you can read about it in my previous post by clicking here) has been translated to dip bubbles. Well, I disagree, and I find that notion ridiculous! Not every word can be translated into English because: (1) every language is unique, (2) English is an amalgam, (3) established words can be imported (4) untranslatable words do exist, and (5) translation is relative.

Every Language Is Unique

I do not think that I have to elaborate this, but for argument’s sake, I will. Each language varies in phonetics, phonemics, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse, and other elements of linguistics. Granted that they may share some basic elements, but at the end of the day, one language is different from another.

For example, both Korean and Japanese follow the same basic syntactic arrangement: subject-object-verb. However, when the sentence gets longer and more complex, the difference stands out. As opposed to this syntactic arrangement, English follows subject-verb-object pattern. In addition, unlike English, Korean does not have sounds for /v/, /f/, and initial /ŋ/. On the other hand, when forming words, Japanese uses syllables instead of phonemes, thus, they use “ru” instead of /r/ and “su” instead of /s/. Another prominent difference between languages is the difference of phonemes a letter represents. For example, in English, the letter J generally represents the sound /dʒ/, but in Spanish, it represents /h/.

I could go on with the difference of other languages with compared with English, but I guess it is clear enough: that no two languages are identical in any forms—even Bisaya in Cebu differs from the Bisaya in Davao, as well as the Hiligaynon (commonly “misconcepted” as Ilonggo) In Iloilo differs from that in Capiz and Negros.

English Is an Amalgam

Not the amalgam that dentists use in tooth filling though, but in some sense it is like that. English is an amalgamation of several languages; that is the very reason we have words in English with foreign roots (if not all, actually). We have sympathy from Greek, we have quintessence from Middle French, we have digit from Latin, we have canyon from Spanish, and the list can go on, actually. This shows how dynamic a language can be—it changes, especially to cater the needs of the speaker. Every now and then, there are new words that are added to the English dictionary, whether it is by coinage or by “adoption.” And this leads us to our next point: that it is okay to import certain words from one language to another.

Established Words Can Be Imported

Kimchi, burrito, taco, mustang, sequin, prima donna, cappuccino, senate, tequila, blitz, aspirin, feng shui, tsunami, cameo, magenta, medal, doodle—these are just some of the words that were directly lifted from one language and placed in the English vocabulary. Why? Because they are either established words in their respective mother tongues or they do not have direct or exact English translation. We do not call kimchi “Korean fermented vegetable” although that’s what it is. So why do we have to “roughly” translate tuslob buwa? Although it roughly means “to dip in bubbles,” calling it dip bubbles is ridiculous. Other than that, tuslob buwa is a “trademark” of the Cebuano culture. If we can import kimchi and burrito into the English language, why not tuslob buwa? Why not other words that are established trademarks of our culture?

Untranslatable Words Do Exist

Yes, this is true. If otherwise, then, there will be no need to borrow words from other languages. For example, the Indonesian word jayus, which means “the awkward humor behind a joke delivered so badly that you can’t help but laugh,” has no English equivalent. Another example is the German word schadenfreude, “a feeling of enjoyment that comes from seeing or hearing about the troubles of other people.” So no, as opposed to the idea that you can express everything in English, it is impossible to translate every word. There are hundreds of words our there that cannot be directly translated into English.

Translation Is Relative

Now, let’s talk about translation. One of the most translated books into the English language is the Bible. There are at least 450 versions of the English translation of the Bible. Why is that? Because translation is relative. It all depends on the translator’s discretion whether to render the translation with fidelity or transparency.

Fidelity and transparency are the two main elements considered when translating one language to another. There is what we call formal equivalence (metaphrase) and dynamic equivalence (paraphrase). Dynamic equivalence (or functional equivalence) conveys the essential thoughts expressed in a source text—if necessary, at the expense of literality, original sememe and word order, the source text’s active vs. passive voice, etc.  By contrast, formal equivalence (sought via literal translation) attempts to render the text literally, or word for word, if necessary, at the expense of features natural to the target language.

The concept of metaphrase is imperfect because a given word in a given language often carries more than one meaning and because a similar given meaning may often be represented in a given language by more than one word. Nevertheless, metaphrase and paraphrase may be useful as ideal concepts that mark the extremes in the spectrum of possible approaches to translation.

Let’s take the following example: ikapila, a local word that is used to inquire the order of an object in a given series. Now, we can translate it in different ways, depending on the question: ikapila ka? (What number are you?). But let’s try different questions: Ikapila ka nga anak sa imong mama? Ikapila nga presidente sa Pilipinas si Noynoy? Kind of tough isn’t it? In these instances, you do not have to translate the question word by word, but just carry its essential thought over to the target language: What is your birth order among your siblings? In the series of Philippine presidency, which order does Noynoy fall?

In conclusion, it is ridiculous to assume and assert that every word in your language has a direct English equivalent, let alone roughly translate words that have been established in your mother tongue. But yes, EOP is good.

One thought on “Arguing with Myself: Of Language Differences and Translation

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