Language is what sets humans apart from other mammals. Our ability to use words and to construct languages is unique to us, and it has always been our driving force. Imagine life without language: very little of what we do now would be the same. We would hunt and fish, and that would be about it. Things like carrying out a cash isa comparison would be impossible. Language feeds our intelligence and vice versa: as we develop language skills in childhood, so neural pathways open up in our brains which help us to continue developing. Scientists are unsure exactly how much of our ability to learn language is innate, and how much of it comes from socialisation. However, we do know that each language reflects the culture of those who speak it.
Language and Culture
Languages develop so that we can communicate the things that we need to. The things that a tribal person living in the Amazon jungle needs to communicate are likely to be quite different from the things that someone living in central London needs to communicate. The Amazonian will have plenty of very specific words for the things that he needs to use to survive day-to-day, and the things he sees around him. He may have, for example, several very specialised terms for different types of hunting spear. The Londoner will know only one word for spear, but will know many specialised terms related to the computers that she uses every day.
In a globalised world, how are these differences sustained, if at all? And how can translators help bridge gaps in cultural understanding between different languages?
One of the most difficult jobs that a translator needs to do is to is to translate not just the words, but the real meanings of different languages. The way that a language is constructed or the vocabulary it uses can have a profound effect on the way its native speakers think. A good translator will be able to see and understand these effects. As an example, the Lingala language spoken by people in the Congo, has a very different system of family and kinship terms to English. Someone would use a different word for their older sibling than for their younger sibling, but would not distinguish their siblings by gender. They would use different words for their aunts and uncles depending on whether they are from their paternal or maternal side, and they have the same words for grandparents and grandchildren. Their view of family ties and relationships is therefore quite different than an English speaker’s view.
It is these kinds of difference that a good translator really needs to be able to get to grips with to be able to translate not just OK, but well. As we grow closer together, globally, our differences become in many ways more apparent. At the same time, the need for translation is ever-greater. In order for our globalised world to function properly, we need to be able to communicate with each other easily, quickly and effectively. Translators facilitate so much in our world.
One of the reasons that translation services are so in-demand is that it’s just not possible to pick up another language quickly. Some have a greater talent for doing so than others, but even for the best, it takes years of study. To really become fluent, ideally you need to live in a country in which the language is spoken for a time. Translators have often spent many years acquiring their skills. Learning one language often makes it easier to learn another, as once you’ve gained an understanding of how to make the connections between different patterns of grammar and vocabulary, it’s easier to do that again for another language. The language we speak may help define the way that we see the world, but translators are special people who have learned to see the world as others see it, not just as they see it themselves. Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings can cause real problems for those trying to work globally, but translators can help both explain and prevent them from happening. Translation is the key to building our world together as a global people, heading into the future as one tribe, rather than many.