Translating one language into another perfectly is impossible


Having lived in four different cultures, I am a person without perfect command of any language, even my mother tongue. Mastering a language is difficult not only because of grammar and pronunciation but because of baggage it carries. Language is a product of culture, history, time, and tradition, therefore almost impossible to find the perfect match of the words from different languages with exactly the same meaning.

Japanese hospitals don’t have fourth floor. In Japanese, the sound of ‘four’ is same as the sound of the word ‘death’ – “shi.” I came to a conclusion that perfect translation of any language into another is impossible. Most of us read the Bible in translations, few read it in original Aramaic or Hebrew. So, taking its every word as absolute truth does not make sense.

There are many other examples. When Pearson Government launched “CUSO – Canadian University Service Overseas” during the 1960’s, Japanese students at the UBC laughed so hard falling off chair. It’s sounded the ‘s’ word in Japanese. In order not offend anybody in any language in their new brand, a big oil company had to spend millions of dollars in search of a name that would not offend anybody in any language. The result: “Exxon.”

You will be surprised at Christian churches in the Arabic speaking countries, and hear God is invoked with the name “Allah.” In Arabic, God is the same word among Christians as among Muslims. But in the American and European countries the word “Allah” gives a different image. Confucius called on “heaven” in stead of God.

This is why translating a language into another is tricky, almost impossible and easily manipulated. The Church adopted the word “virgin” in Greek translation for the Hebrew word “young woman” to conform to the divine birth stories of other religions. In the Lord’s Prayer, the original Greek word “debt” was changed to “trespass” in my lifetime. The reason; for capitalism “debt or credit” is essential element of economy. So the total prohibition of interest in the Book of Leviticus has been modified and “debt” was banished.

Language is an important tool for us to communicate each other, yet admittedly is imperfect. Therefore, hearing other persons’ thoughts only through words is fraught with misunderstanding. We must not pass judgment on people only by hearing their words. Deeds speak louder. Never claim you are absolutely right, because you aren’t.

One thought on “Translating one language into another perfectly is impossible

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