By Adriana Adarve & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
The vast majority of words can be translated directly: words for colors, animals, sun, moon and stars, words for different kinds of motion. There are other words that cannot be translated at all, and the reason they can’t be is worth noting.
There is a major discussion going on in the USA now about “The ‘N’ Word.” One discussion point involves the celebrity chef Paula Dean, another the killing of a black/African-American (more on that term shortly) teenager in Florida. The “N” Word derives from “Niger,” the Latin word for “black,” and exists in various forms in most Romance languages. In most languages, the word is not controversial.
The English derivation of that word is not translatable, because it carries with it the American cultural experience of slavery and racism. To be sure, there are many words in many languages that describe people who were enslaved and subject to racial and cultural discrimination, but those words describe other cultures and are not equivalent to the American “N” Word. The best a translator can do is to describe what that historical experience has come to mean.
The translating problems do not end there. In the United States, people who have a lot of melanin in their skin are described as being “African-Americans.” That term might work well enough in English, in the USA, but it is of little use elsewhere. There are many black races—in Australia, Oceania, the Indian sub-continent—where people have very dark skin and have no connection with Africa. There are also many native Africans who have light skin: the Berbers and Arabs of North Africa, for example, not to mention the millions of light-skinned descendants of former colonial powers, many of whose families have lived in Africa for centuries. The standard American English term “African-American” is only appropriate when speaking of the American racial and cultural experience.
Other Misused Terms…
Other terms are misused as a result of religious sensitivities. The pre-fix “anti” means to dislike or be against something or someone, thus “anti-American,” or “anti-Semitic.” The latter word is misused in that, while the Jews are one of many Semitic peoples in western Asia, the term anti-Semitic refers only to Jewish people.
The suffix “phobia” means to have an irrational dislike or aversion to something or someone. Arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders; homophobia is an irrational dislike of homosexuals. The suffix has been hijacked by moderate Muslims in response to violent acts by some of their radical co-religionists. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, moderate followers of Islam urged against “Islamophobia.” Most non-Muslims do not have an irrational dislike or fear of moderate followers of Islam; they do have a very rational reason to be anti-Islamist in the wake of repeated atrocities (and exhortations for jihadists to commit them) by radical Islamists.
Language is often a very slippery thing, but “anti” and “phobia” have quite specific meanings and should not be subverted to lessen the impact of murderous behavior.
So, to come full circle, while most words can be translated exactly, others cannot be translated at all because they carry a weight of cultural and historical baggage unique to the culture that uses the word, for example the “N” Word.
There are many terms that make sense in the culture to which they are indigenous, which do not make sense in other languages and cultures, for example using the geographical term “Africa” to describe ethnicity or the color of a person’s skin.
There are still other terms that can be misused, such as employing “anti-Semitic” to mean only the Jewish ethnic group among ethnic Semites, and using “Islamophobia” to imply that any fear or dislike of Islamists is irrational.
Words that deal with subjects like racism and religion are perforce sensitive and potentially explosive. An expert translator must have a good working knowledge of cultural history as well as languages, and must aware of the delicacy of translating emotive terms from one language to another.
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French). Her team of translators can provide quick and accurate translations into nearly any language. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums.