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By Shayne O’Loughlin

Within translation theory there exists sources of constant debate among scholars in just how we ought to translate works between languages. Among these debates are those between “linguistic universalism” and “linguistic relativism,” and their respective 20th century proponents Noam Chomsky and the dynamic duo of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf. To summarize into horribly dubious simplicity, linguistic universalism posits that all concepts are translatable, whereas linguistic relativism posits that language impacts the native speaker’s perception of the world. Relativist translation theorists consequently conclude that truly accurate translation is impossible. One could call these two views the optimistic and the pessimistic, respectively.

To Sapir and Whorf’s credit, the empirical evidence suggests that there may be truth to their initial hypothesis. A classic-yet-fascinating example is the Mayan language’s lack of relative direction, meaning concepts like left and right don’t exist in their language. Instead, Mayan strictly uses cardinal direction (i.e. north, south, east, and west), resulting in what some scientists consider a brain more “tuned-in” to cardinality than most. Another example which has since been debunked (but was still supported by Whorf during his life) is the vast number of Inuit words for snow in all its various forms. The truth is less glamorous in this case, however, when it was later clarified that these forms used the same root to create compound words, which itself is not very unique. Say we want to make a word for wet snow; we can just mash the two words together into “wetsnow” and if enough English speakers use it, that can be a whole new word. Hardly damning evidence. 

Then there’s the case in Japanese, where the word 青い (aoi) originally meant both blue and green because of the two colors’ association with nature. Despite the fact that Japanese now has the word 緑 (midori) to represent green, 青い is still used for more archaic uses of green, such as in vegetables, forests, and, interestingly enough, traffic lights. The conclusion we can make from this evidence is that, at most, the relativists were correct in their hypothesis that language can make an impact on perception, but that those impacts hardly result in radically different perceptions of the world to the point where foreign concepts couldn’t be understood. None of the evidence listed above is conclusive to that point. In the case of the Mayan language, it was studied that when tested doing mazes, any human could be trained to keep a “true north,” so to speak; and the Japanese people can differentiate between blue and green just fine.

The source of these nuances in perception are more likely socio-cultural. Pulling from Japanese yet again, the use of first-person pronouns and other speaking patterns indicate a higher complexity in identity than the plain “I, me, myself” in English. Among Japanese’s lexicon of first-person pronouns, none have explicit rules for their use. 私 (watashi) is considered neutral and somewhat formal; 僕 (boku) and 俺 (ore) are masculine, with the former denoting a more boyish disposition and the latter a more mature one; あたし (atashi) is considered softer and more feminine; 自分 (jibun), literally meaning “one’s self,” is rarely used today as a personal pronoun in most dialects, but reflects polite samurai culture from previous centuries; わし (washi) is an elderly pronoun. What’s important to note about these first-person pronouns is that they are not rigid in any regard: Plenty of women use the masculine pronouns to appear more masculine, and vice versa. It has actually become an element of identity among Japan’s gay subculture to use あたし and other softer language to sound more feminine. 

The important takeaway, beyond cultural trivia, is that while these eccentricities cannot be completely replicated in English, their implications can be. A relativist translation theorist would argue that the feat of translation would be less valuable or even appropriative because the translated text would be missing valuable context that comes from the language and its idiosyncrasies. In the case of translating a Japanese dialogue of a gay man into English, there are equivalent expressions that could connote homosexuality. While considered  “bad form,” the use of footnotes or endnotes can also provide additional context that many relativist translation theorists would dismiss out-of-hand from an aesthetic or experiential point of view. That these concepts can be explained means that at best, our own “functional” intuition can make near-exact semantic replicas of original texts and, at worst, annotation can suffice.

We have established that the relativist position holds that certain concepts are harder to understand in certain languages because of differences out of the control of the people who speak those languages, and that this is because of language’s tight ties with society and culture. Historically, some proponents of linguistic relativism have championed the superiority of certain perceptions (and the backwardness of others). This extreme form of linguistic relativity is called linguistic determinism, and comes as a chauvinistic conclusion from analyzing the difference in perception between different languages. When applied to translation theory, they are forced to conclude that—in these instances—translation is impossible, due to a sheer imbalance of perception. 

Outside of linguistic determinism, the realm of relativist translation theory strikes an unstable oxymoronic relationship between aspects of “foreignizing” and “domesticating” translated texts in an attempt to best preserve semantic information. After all, the main draw of translation studies as a field is to provide techniques and commentary that might provide a greater common understanding of translation ethics. The socio-linguistic aspect of translation ethics has taken the approach of “intersectionality” in applying the precepts of racial studies, gender studies, and colonial studies. The result is a greater level of scrutiny towards the context of the original text, its source language, and the target language, which has supplanted classical translation theory as a concern in the past half-century of post-structuralist thought in linguistics. It can largely be said that the influence of linguistic relativity has encouraged these efforts with the claim being made that it is the responsibility of a translator to treat these “intersectional identities” (i.e. race, gender, sexuality etc.) with greater care as a result of an increasing atomization of subcultures and their respective colloquialisms. 

Take an example like the one used above:The gay Japanese man. It falls on the translator to appropriately interpret his colloquialisms and expressions with respect to the broader experience of gay men in Japan. Examples such as this have had real-world ramifications of the jobs of translators, as their respective literary translation groups have a real say over the requirements of translation (in something of an incestuous cycle). In order to advocate for “unheard voices,” there has been discussion as to whether a transgender author can be translated by a non-transgender translator, or a black author by a non-black translator, with the rationale being that a non-transgender or non-black translator would not be able to understand fully the experience of the authors they translate. This raises the question: Should shared identity really supersede qualifications when deciding on a translator?

Relativist translation theory can be brought down through a simple thought-experiment: For the sake of argument, let us grant that each discrete language that exists today creates a sort of “exclusionary” pair of sunglasses which tints the native speakers’ perception of the world around them, blinding them to the worldviews of speakers of other languages. Where would we even go about drafting up the borders of our languages? How distant does a dialect have to be before it is no longer the language that it descended it from? Are pidgins and creoles separate too? All of these questions have arbitrary answers which a relativist could give you, but for the sake of consistency, we have to start filtering down and atomizing to a point which we collectively deem fit, where one group of people speaks with the “similar enough” language, idioms, and other idiosyncrasies that we no longer risk something “getting lost in translation”. To be more direct, we fall down into a sort of “phenomenological solipsism,” that is, a belief that your own perception is the only one that can be certain. The issue with this solipsism is that it is antithetical to the very focus of translation theory, as well as to any form of discussion whatsoever. If we communicate, we engage in the act of attempting to translate our thoughts into a form that others can interpret. To be a consistent relativist-translation-theorist, you would have to believe that it’d be best for you to shut up and never attempt to share your thoughts in the first place, or else you would be making a performative contradiction.

Because we as humans translate the thoughts of our “metalanguage” (i.e. our experiences and memories unfiltered by words) into functional human language, we must believe that, even against the odds of being misunderstood, we endeavor to be understood. If we as individuals have such radically different perceptions, then we have proven that linguistic universalism is the only prescription for our continued communications. If we do not, then linguistic universalism is a given. Through this dilemma we can determine that linguistic relativity is not a functional roadblock in translation theory. While linguistic relativity may very well exist, it says nothing to the nature of understanding, and its notes on perception are not so great that cross-language communication is an impossible undertaking.

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