This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Languages are not equivalent

Everyone will admit that languages are not grammatically equivalent, but there still persists, to those not familiar with very many of them, the assumption that this is only an appearance, and that aside from the ‘accidental’ difference in arrangement, and of course the even more obvious phonetic and alphabetic differences, the substance of all languages is the same. The container differs but the contents, they assume, are universal. Or to say it another way, there is an unconscious assumption that behind the forms, all languages can convey the same meanings. This is very much not the case. Language is the accurate representation of the mentality of those who use it. Where mentality differs, so also will the language. And even among those who speak the same tongue, if the way of thinking diverges, it will sometimes seem that they are ‘speaking different languages,’ even those they are both using precisely the same words. This holds true for time as well as place. French from only two hundred years ago would in many cases need to be ‘translated’ in order to be fully comprehensible today, despite the fact that the same words are in use. This is the first problem with translation. Because difference in language is not merely a problem of comparing vocabularies and choosing equivalent terms, translation requires far more than a merely grammatical knowledge. There may be equivalent terms, but the ideas conveyed by them may have very different meanings attached to them, and much is always lost. In essence, there is no such thing as mere translation. Other process are at work.

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