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  • Writer's pictureKarolien Willems

On language, languages and translation

Updated: Jan 12, 2020

Language is rarely an end in itself. Nor is it something simple or absolute. Language only takes on meaning when we put it to work and produce a text. Every written or spoken word is part of a linguistic puzzle comprised of thousands upon thousands of pieces with an infinite number of possibilities and effects that, in one way or another, set communication in motion.

Thousands of languages are spoken around the world, many of which are made up of dozens of different dialects. Each individual, in turn, has their own accent and way of expression, specific language skills and, above all, their own linguistic context. And yet, or maybe precisely for this reason, we communicate with each other constantly. We are always reinterpreting the linguistic acts of others in order to fit them into our experience. And when reinterpretation is no longer possible, because the gap between the language and the speaker/writer and the listener/reader is too great, we require a translator or interpreter, a professional to restore this bridge of communication.

It is often said that translation is impossible, that a translation always betrays the original message. This may sometimes be true with literary and poetic texts which, not merely an act of communication, are works of art sculpted in words. But there is no reason why this should be the case with a commercial text, manual, company letter, cookbook, website or scientific article, for example. These are more or less unambiguous messages that can be transferred perfectly from one language system to another.

Needless to say, translation is not a matter of mechanical transference, but rather an interaction between linguistic and socio-cultural factors in which difficulties such as wordplay, idiomatic expressions and cultural references are not insurmountable, but present a fascinating challenge for the linguist. Translation is a multi-faceted profession that not only requires sound grammar, a rich vocabulary and appropriate style, but also a knowledge of the world and of human nature. And there’s currently no automatic translation software out there that can match this knowledge!


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