Lifestyle and Culture

What Our Language Habits Reveal

December 13, 2012
Global flags

Global flags

Linguist and author Steven Pinker sees language as a window into human nature. In a 2005 TED video, Steven discusses how sophisticated language analysis can help us understand ourselves and others. Here at Interpreters and Translators (iTi), we think this video presents good insights that a professional interpreter or translator can use to better express the meaning behind words.

Our favorite part of the Steven Pinker video is about halfway through when Steven talks about how people don’t differ on the facts but on how those facts are construed or interpreted. He lists two very different ways (or interpretations) that someone might use for the same event. For example, you or I might say, “ending a pregnancy” or we might say, “killing a fetus.” Both phrases describe the facts but the interpretation of the facts, the flavor of the way the information is presented, is totally different. Another example is saying an army invaded a country or describing the same situation as the army liberating that country.

Doesn’t the entire tone of the interpretation change dramatically depending on whether we say the government wants to “redistribute wealth” rather than government wants to “confiscate earnings”? As translators and interpreters we need to be keenly away of such differences and communicate not just the facts but the tone or flavor behind those facts.

Saying One Thing But Meaning Another

Next on the video Steven talks about indirect speech acts. He defines indirect speech acts as those times when the words say one thing while the speaker is really communicating something else. Have you faced that challenge in interpreting?

One example Steven presents in the video is a speaker who says, “Nice store you have here. It would be a real shame if something happened to it.” This could be a threat. The video also discusses the sexual tone behind the sentence, “Would you like to come upstairs and see my etchings?” For those of you who didn’t grow up in the American culture, that last question is a veiled way to explore a person’s willingness to engage in sexual intimacy.

Yes, we know examples like these are unlikely to come up in your work but the principle is the same. You may have to interpret or translate something that requires you to explain what the words mean on a deeper or different level. Language is more than words. Language is also a way of negotiating relationships, Steven says.

The 17 minute video goes on to say language works on two levels, the literal and the implied. This is another reason why you, if you’re an interpreter or translator, will always be more skilled than any piece of translation software.

About Interpreters and Translators, Inc.

iTi’s dedicated and experienced team offers a wide range of multilingual solutions for domestic and global corporations in a variety of industries. Do you require translation services to enhance your global marketing and sales initiatives or interpreter services to communicate across languages? We specialize in custom language solutions and work with over 200 languages so regardless of the barrier you face, we will work together in synergy to bridge the gap to ensure success. Please feel free to contact us through a message or by calling 860-362-0812. Our offices are open 24/7/365 so we can respond immediately to your interpreting or translation needs anytime, anywhere.

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