Last night, we had an interesting discussion regarding translations, particularly of the bible. My point of contention with reading the bible and trying to gain any literal meaning from it stems from the complexity of simple translations even from contemporary cultures. You have to be culturally knowledgeable to make a translation, and nobody is culturally knowledgeable about the time periods during which old texts were written.
just look at these examples:
Geist in German means both mind and/or spirit, depending on the context.
ใจ in Thai means both heart and/or mind, depending on the context.
In english, mind generally means “the part of us that does the thinking”, which most of us agree is the brain.
For example, the phrase “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
So this could be mistranslated to read:
“blessed are the poor in heart”
“blessed are the poor in mind”
“blessed are the poor in brain”
And that is just one word. I think, in this context, the correct translation for “poor” would have been humble. Even 150 years ago that was a contemporary meaning for poor, however, it’s not anymore.
Of course, I’m not a bible scholar or anything of the sort, but biblical phrases are tossed around so liberally and literally and I can’t help but think they are generally mistranslated.
how do you translate an idiom that’s two or three thousand years old from a dead culture anyway?
The other day I was watching a youtube video on making samurai swords. (rather, we were watching, that’s not a typical activity of mine alone. :) They were describing properties of the different metals, using words like hard, tensile, brittle, ductile. I had an interesting realization partway through the video: I didn’t know the word ductile before, but now I knew what it meant.
It’s very rare for me to see an english word I don’t know, apart from nouns (particularly in a technical context.) When I hear a new noun, my thought process is automatically “what does that mean” and I look it up or ask the question.
But hearing a new adjective was a different experience. I didn’t think to ask ‘what does that mean’, instead, the answers were filled in by the context. I still haven’t looked it up, but ductile, when used in the metal-smithing context by a British person, means flexible. Or more flexible than other, harder metals.
This realization was fascinating because it’s a very small clarity about how language acquisition works. I’m at the point with german that new adjectives now function the same way ‘ductile’ did for me in english- the automatic filling in of meaning from context occurs. (only there are many many more of them :) I had been worried about it in my German studies: I wondered why I thought I knew what these words meant in context, when I was pretty certain I wouldn’t even be sure whether they were adjectives or verbs outside of a sentence.
but just hearing that one new english adjective made me feel so much better. it’s just the same process for all languages.