Linguists have considered translation myths and the role of language in our thought processes since the 1950s. Two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, proposed that part of how psychology works (at least on an individual level) is that the language you speak determines your thoughts.
Translation Myths and Linguistic Determinism
These linguists developed the proposition that language limits and determines thought. Among other translation myths, this view was supported by the now-defunct example introduced by anthropologist Franz Boas about Eskimos having at least 50 words for snow, compared to the supposed single English word. Though contradicted with words like sleet, slush, and flurry, among others, Harvard linguist Steven Pinker asked people if they “can think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow,” pointing out that the people more likely altered the language than the language altered how psychology works.
Translation Myths and Linguistic Relativity
While there is no shortage of people on either side of the Sapir-Whorf issue, there is substantial research to support certain aspects of translation myths and small differences in the way speakers of fundamentally different languages portray and perceive life. A perfect example comes when comparing two different languages with arbitrary gender assignments to inanimate objects. Take the example of a key, which is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. When study participants are asked to assign adjectives to their word for key, Spanish speakers use more traditionally feminine words like “intricate” and “tiny, while German speakers use more stereotypically masculine words like “hard” and “heavy.”
Translation Myths and Untranslatable Words
A key idea that is separate from translation myths but often associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that if another language has a word for something ours does not, do we not experience whatever the word is describing? The Finnish word sisu, one such word without a direct English counterpart, can be explained as a combination of both determination and bravery. Because Finnish speakers are able to use one word, they will conceptualize its meaning differently than an English speaker. Effectively addressing issues like this requires an intimate familiarity with both source and target language. Words that are unique to a particular language are one of the many obstacles that must be overcome by professional translators, since machine translation is unlikely to capture the word with its full meaning.
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