Oh, the pit­falls of lan­guage

Prairie Post (West Edition) - - Opinion -


Hav­ing lived in four dif­fer­ent cul­tures, I am a per­son with­out per­fect com­mand of any lan­guage, even my mother tongue. Mas­ter­ing a lan­guage is dif­fi­cult not only be­cause of gram­mar and pro­nun­ci­a­tion but be­cause of bag­gage it car­ries. Lan­guage is a prod­uct of cul­ture, his­tory, time and tra­di­tion, there­fore al­most im­pos­si­ble to find the per­fect match of the words from dif­fer­ent lan­guages with ex­actly the same mean­ing.

Ja­panese hos­pi­tals don’t have a fourth floor. In Ja­panese, the sound of “four” is same as the sound of the word “death” – “shi.” I came to a con­clu­sion that per­fect trans­la­tion of any lan­guage into an­other is im­pos­si­ble. Most of us read the Bi­ble in trans­la­tions, few read it in orig­i­nal Ara­maic or He­brew. So, tak­ing its ev­ery word as ab­so­lute truth does not make sense.

There are many other ex­am­ples. When the Pear­son gov­ern­ment launched “CUSO – Cana­dian Univer­sity Ser­vice Over­seas” dur­ing the 1960s, Ja­panese stu­dents at the UBC laughed so hard they were fall­ing off their chairs. It sounded like the “s” word in Ja­panese.

In or­der not of­fend any­body in any lan­guage in their new brand, a big oil com­pany had to spend mil­lions of dol­lars in search of a name that would not of­fend any­body in any lan­guage. The re­sult: “Exxon.”

You will be sur­prised at Chris­tian churches in the Ara­bic-speak­ing coun­tries, and hear God is in­voked with the name “Al­lah.” In Ara­bic, God is the same word among Chris­tians as for Mus­lims.

But in the Amer­i­can and Euro­pean coun­tries the word “Al­lah” gives a dif­fer­ent im­age. Con­fu­cius called on “heaven” in­stead of God.

This is why trans­lat­ing a lan­guage into an­other is tricky, al­most im­pos­si­ble and eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated. The Church adopted the word “virgin” in Greek trans­la­tion for the He­brew word “young woman” to con­form to the di­vine birth sto­ries of other re­li­gions. In the Lord’s prayer, the orig­i­nal Greek word “debt” was changed to “tres­pass” in my life­time. The rea­son: for cap­i­tal­ism “debt or credit” is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of econ­omy. So the to­tal pro­hi­bi­tion of in­ter­est in the Book of Leviti­cus has been mod­i­fied and “debt” was ban­ished.

Lan­guage is an im­por­tant tool for us to com­mu­ni­cate with each other, yet ad­mit­tedly is im­per­fect.

There­fore, hear­ing other per­sons’ thoughts only through words is fraught with mis­un­der­stand­ing.

We must not pass judg­ment on peo­ple only by hear­ing their words. Deeds speak louder. Never claim you are ab­so­lutely right, be­cause you aren’t.


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