Your average translator is somewhat of a bookworm, and most definitely a pencil pusher (if the electronic age would not forbid us to actually use pencils). His or her working time is entirely spent in the company of words—source words, target words, dictionary terms, glossary terms, vocabulary lists, reference lists: amazing what can be accumulated by seemingly endless combinations of only 26 individual characters in many of today’s languages.
For most people, language is not really something they think about—it’s a tool we use on a daily basis, but why and how it works is rarely on anyone’s mind, unless you happen to be a professional linguist in some shape or form. The latter variety of course has studied the phenomena for centuries, but I am not about to discuss the many theories and models they have come up with. Nevertheless, I do invite you to marvel for just a little while on the workings of language, without which hardly any of our modern commodities could have been created in the first place.
The sound and the thing
There is not much that confirms the will (and sheer necessity) of coming together like the mutual agreement on a certain sound to signify a specific object, action or characteristic. Imagine our hunting and gathering forefathers repeatedly producing the same grunt to designate a certain plant or animal, recognizing that by assigning a sound to a thing, communication loses the limitations of pointing and shouting. Such an agreement didn’t have to be set in stone, neither literally nor otherwise—continuing consensus formed fluidly, just as it does today when a new term or expression emerges. If enough of us start using a word with a certain meaning, it will become part of our vocabulary, and the same goes for all the other fun parts that make language the incredible living tool that it is—what we commonly dread refer to as grammar. As many rules (and exceptions) there are, the process that really happens is simply one of “spreading the word”. The writing down and making up rules portion happens only in hindsight. It’s a truly democratic procedure, and one of the most creative I can think of—after all, we have evolved from grunting at a tree to expressing ourselves in highly complicated structures that we still all agree on, and therefore understand.*
The power of Babel
We all love the story of how God allegedly kicked us out of the tower trying to make us lose that understanding we had gained thanks to language, because it apparently made us too powerful. Of course, nothing good can happen if everyone gets along. Fact is though, whether you look back at the common language we really might have once had, trying to dig up its archeological treasures, or if you look at the riches we can find in the many languages existing today that reflect back on our different cultures, you are always peering deep into the human soul. More than any other of our “symbolic activities” as Ernst Cassirer once defined them—the others being myth, religion, art, and science, together constituting the power of human abstraction—language is part of our everyday experience, regardless of who you are and where you are. It thus carries with it and continuously evolves the knowledge and history of its speakers.
The writing on the wall
Already in its earlier days (commonly dated back to the Bronze Age), language gained a whole other dimension by the efforts of recording its own utterances. After connecting sound and object, yet another connection had to be made, that of associating the entity of sound and object to one or several symbols that could represent it. Just like we developed our verbal skills from barking sounds to elaborate sentences, writing systems evolved from pictograms and glyphs to scripts and alphabets. The first forms were not even reminiscent of the verbal designation of an item but rather a separate representation. After all, it’s much easier to draw a picture of a tree than to figure out what symbols to use that eventually will represent the sounds in /triː/.
From the safety of our desk, translators get to take these blocks of meaning apart, only to put them back together again in a different design. Different combinations will mean different things to different groups of people, based on what they all agreed on. If “schreiben” means “writing” to you, “Tisch” means “table” and “Täter” “offender”, you are part of the group that grasped the opening building block. If you are left with the individual elements, use your imagination—or a professional translator that will recreate the wor(l)d for you.
*If you are a secret linguaphile, I have to recommend Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language”.
Nanette Gobel, MA
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