Tuesday
July 28, 2009
July 28th, 2009 |

Untranslatable

In reading through my blogs, I have noticed that the difference between myself and Italians that I notice most often is language. I’ve talked about “what happens when that communication is outright rejected” in speaking about my encounter with the rude woman on the bus.  I’ve also talked about “Fritalish,” in which I commented that “what’s important is that we were communicating,” no matter the language. For the most basic conversations, I still believe that this is true, but not for cultural understanding. I think this pattern of language analysis is fitting—language, as a product of history and geography, and both a product and producer of culture and mindset, can illustrate telling things about a country.

For example, in Latin, there is a word called auctoritas, which a dictionary would mostly translate as “power.” It’s both correct and incorrect. If you desperately needed one English word to stand in for auctoritas, power would be an acceptable substitute. However, it doesn’t really convey what the word means—that blend of charisma, allies, deep pockets and sheer ruthlessness that could propel you to the top of Roman politics. The word is untranslateable, but not incomprehensible.

In a way, speaking two languages is similar to living in two cultures mentioned in the article “Voicing Identities.” I am still speaking of a more advanced level of language— beyond the si, grazie, mi dispiace, quanto costa that we’ve learned here. In fact, one of the authors even describes the role that language plays in culture when she relates a woman saying “Did your parents teach you English only and not Tagalog so  you would be quote-unquote more American?” (Solidon 12).

We had another reading that talked about the different levels of language I’ve drawn. In “Culture Blends,” by Michael Agar, he explains that confusion in language and communication is not from the words, but also from the connotations. He writes “the tendency is to draw a circle around language, to herd neat sentences into a corral […] but the most problems with language, the problems that come up when you try to use it to communicate, aren’t about sentences or parts of speech.” They’re about the words that you can’t translate into English, but you just have to learn–concepts without a name in your first language. Like I said earlier, the true difficulty in intercultural communication is in those things that are untranslateable. They should not, however, be incomprehensible.

I feel like that distinction can apply to many of the things I have encountered here in Urbino. For example, I’ve heard pausa referred to jokingly as an “afternoon nap,” which makes it seem almost childish, rather than pragmatic as I feel it to be. If you live in an area where it’s too hot to function in the middle of the day, you just don’t function. You adapt, and spend the middle of the day resting and keeping cool—pausing. The concept makes perfect sense, but there’s no way to translate it into an English mindset.

This makes me think of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that a specific language produces a mindset that goes with it–such as speakers of a language with one word that means both blue and purple being unable to perceive a distinction between the two colors. Would a corollary to that then be that to understand a mindset and culture, one must learn the language?

I don’t think I know enough Italian to figure out if that’s true or not–but I know it’s true in French. You have to know the difference between Etat and gouvernement, understand that paysan is not an insult and laïcité means many different things to different people.

It’s untranslatable, not incomprehensible. I understand how why Francesca, our Italian instructor and coordinator for our interpreters, asked that we refer to them as interpreters rather than translators. You cannot really translate language, in the same way that you cannot translate someone’s state of mind.
I think the realization of this pattern has really helped me understand the gap between our two cultures—to work the hyphen, as it were. Not to sound redundant, but the Italians have a different word for everything (no, duh), and it changes the way they think and look at the world. Their culture is much the same way–it alters the way you think of the world around you. Culture is a kind of language, a kind of mindset. Thus, to appropriately communicate across languages, across cultures, you need to know what “language” they’re speaking, what language you’re speaking, and what may be getting lost in translation.

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