Languages Reveal as Well as Conceal

Languages Reveal as Well as Conceal

by Translation Guy on June 12, 2014
0 comments

Languages are living, breathing tools. In the translation business, it’s our job to express meaning across languages in the most accurate way possible. But what we mean and what we convey, especially in everyday speech, isn’t always clear, turning context and history into important markers. That’s just one of the reasons languages are such fascinating things, as they sometimes reveal as much as they conceal, like statistics and bikinis.

“I went to the movies with a friend.”

In English, this could be a new friend, an old friend, a male friend or a female friend; we don’t know. We only know that you have a friendship with the person you went to the movies with.

Fui al cine con un amigo.”
or
Fui al cine con una amiga.”

In Spanish, on the other hand, simply by mentioning that you have a friend “un amigo” or “una amiga”, we automatically know the gender of the friend in question because you as the speaker are forced to choose one when mentioning your friendly outing to the movies.

In this bilingual example, there is not much difference between the two languages – unless the speaker happens to be talking to a jealous lover, of course. In that case, being allowed to omit or having to reveal the friend’s gender can steer the course of the rest of that conversation.

Passive constructions are another example of structural ambiguousness, tolerating such sentences as: “The package was received yesterday.” But who was there to receive the package? (It wasn’t me.) We may never know, as some languages are naturally better at allowing this, while others like to shy away it. The same is true of delivery companies.

When creating a training manual or other text destined for universal understanding, a writer wants to be understood and will make the effort to be as intelligible as possible. But whether by accident, lack of time or by design, everyday speech is not always clear. We sometimes reveal as much conceal what we want to say.

Are you aware of what your everyday speech says about you?

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