“Words are more treacherous and powerful than we think.” Evaluate the extent to which the characteristics Sartre claims for words affect negatively and positively different areas of knowledge.
To what extent does the existence of different languages and the need for their translation create problems for the acquisition of knowledge?
According to Sartre, words carry more power than we think and have the ability to betray their proper meanings. Words, or in a broader sense, language, is far more powerful than we give it credit for and is ambiguous in its nature to either be powerful in a good way or treacherous. When language is translated properly and knowledge is acquired successfully, language is powerful. However, when there are problems with translation and the original meaning of the words becomes garbled, language becomes treacherous. Now that we are aware of this fact about language, we need to make a calculated decision on the degree of negative effect translation has on the acquisition of knowledge. There are contextual losses, untranslatable words, and idioms. When we examine the losses as a result of translation, the extent to which the existence of different languages and the need for their translation creates problems for the acquisition of knowledge is great.
As the Italians say, Traduttore traditore, ‘the translation is a traitor’” (Van de Lagemaat 63). First of all, each of us has a special relationship to our own native language and this relationship makes us “assume that it fits reality like a glove”. However, when we learn a second language, “one of the things [we] discover is that different languages divide the world up in different ways” (Van de Lagemaat 61). When translating words from one language to another, you “will not get a workable translation but gobbledygook” (Van de Lagemaat 61). This is when translation creates problems for the acquisition of knowledge. When something is being translated, there are three basic rules that must be followed: the translation must remain faithful to the original text, be comprehensible, and when retranslated back into its original language, the translation should be approximate to the original. Many times, the translations of texts from one language to another defy these three commonly agreed criteria, particularly the faithfulness of a translation.
For example, when translating the idiom “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” it comes back in German as “the vodka is agreeable, but the meat is inferior” (Van de Lagemaat 62). Through translation, this idiom lost its true meaning. An example of a mistranslation is when Pepsi Cola ran an advertising campaign in Taiwan, the slogan “Come Alive with Pepsi” was translated into Chinese and when translated back into English, it read “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead!” (Van de Lagemaat 63). Unsurprisingly, because of the ill communicated meaning, the campaign was a failure. There is also inaccurate translation in literature such as the mistranslation of Albert Camus widely renowned novel’s title The Stranger, or L’etranger. In French, L’etranger does not simply mean “stranger” but has a much deeper and intricate meaning that caters to the novel’s explicit message.
Further evidence that not everything is translated adequately is found in the translations of the Quran, “the central religious text of Islam”. “Because the Qur’an stresses its Arabic nature, Muslim scholars believe that any translation cannot be more than an approximate interpretation, intended only as a tool for the study and understanding of the original Arabic text” (Mohammed 58). Since not only the text must be translated, but the meaning and symbolism, it is believed that many things are lost in the Arabic to English interpretation. Whether or not the renderings of the Quran into English or other languages are accurate enough of not is a heavily debated subject for scholars. I can understand how this happens being a speaker of Arabic myself. There are certain Arabic words I say in my day-today life that cannot be appropriately translated in English without their actual meanings being lost.
The Arabic expressions like “yislamleh teezik” that make little to no sense when directly translated into English. In Arabic, this commonly used expression is supposed to be an affectionate way of saying “thank you” or “may you always stay in my life”. The English translation would be “may God bless your butt”, and the charming meaning it has in Arabic is completely lost to translation. Although translation causes problems for the acquisition of knowledge to a great extent, it does not always do this. When something can be translated and the meaning is transferred from one language to another without any harm coming to it, knowledge is powerful.
In the realms of mathematics and sciences, mathematical and scientific concepts can be translated accurately from one language to another unlike in literature. An example of this can be found in my math studies classroom with Ms. Halabi. She told us a humorous anecdote about how she learnt math in Arabic and how that would have been so unusual for us to experience. Math is a universal language and is not harmed when translated from one language to another.
In conclusion, the translation of knowledge between different languages can be both powerful and treacherous in nature. It is powerful when there is no loss of meaning between translations but can be treacherous when it disrupts the acquisition of knowledge. This is a bad thing because as knowers, we don’t get to access certain knowledge because it can’t be translated properly.