Monday, 7 May 2012

A Language Post for People Who Don't Know Much About Language

I had quite a curious experience yesterday which prompted me to write about language as one would not normally do it. I noticed that people who can speak foreign languages and those who don't have an entirely different way of thinking of them.

The occasion was this: Somebody was trying to find an appropriate translation of the phrase "Make yourselves known to me" into German. Not an unsurmountable problem, you would think. Not like translating "Seinsvergessenheit" into Hungarian or such like. Still, as she was a writer, I wanted to suggest a translation that was both somehow "elegant",  context-appropriate, and short - maybe worth pointing out it all happened on Twitter. So I translated it as "Schickt mir einfach eine DM mit Name und Adresse". The person in question must have run this through Google translate and found it horrendously not matching her initial prompt. Or maybe Google Translate also came up with something inappropriate. In the end, she settled for: "Machen sie sich bekannt".

Which, needless to say, is somewhat hilarious.

So, it struck me, that people who have no notion of other languages, have a deeply ingrained trust of the word-by-word translation.What can possibly be wrong with that, they'd argue? "Kown" means bekannt. Make - machen. you =sie (or, in this context, but never mind those little things- Sie). So hey presto, a translation!

Nobody in their right minds would agree that this is an acceptable or even comprehensible translation of the original sentence. Yet people without language skills obviously need an assurance, an anchor if you like, that what they're "translating" is the actual words, and not something fancy.

I find this so weird, and almost unbelievable that I have trouble getting my brain round this way of thinking. The only time I think I ever did translations like that, was when we translated Latin texts at school.

A deep non-empathy with the workings of another language, or a belief that surely, all languages follow the rules of your own? As I say, difficult to track that line of thinking, but possibly a warning never to fall into this particular trap!

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