After having seen several examples of how language influences our perception of the world, I want to end this series commenting briefly the effects it may have when translating from one language to another.
How does the influence that language has on our perception of the world affect when translating? In this sense, we must be very careful in order to transmit all that implicit meanings a text might entail, especially the more distant are the languages. It is necessary to know in depth not only the language from which we translate and the language we translate to, but also all the cultural conventions associated to them.
The differences between languages do not mean that certain languages or types of texts cannot be translated, because as already noted, every language can be translated. And if a given language lacks a specific vocabulary it can always be borrowed or created, as all languages have been doing throughout history.
Here I just want to show a small example of how is important in translation to take into account the way in which language influences the perception of the world.
Heinrich Heine, one of the most renowned German poets of the nineteenth century, wrote a poem in his language which describes the desire of a snowy pine for an oriental and sunburned palm tree.
The poem was published in 1822, being inmediatly translated to other European languages. In the case of English it was James Thomson who translated it.
But there is a problem, which is that while in German pine is masculine and palm tree is feminine, key to the interpretation of the poem, the fact that English has not this distinction makes the translation into English fail in its intention, completely missing the sexual metaphor between the pine and the palm tree.
Here we can see how this happens with English and Spanish (which also has a distinction between genders).
Although Whorf’s ideas were somewhat fallacious, it is clear that language can influence the thinking and perception of the world. We cannot say that language directly affects for example the sense of orientation of a person, but we can say that the fact that a language could compel someone to be always aware of one thing or another indirectly affects his or her perception. For this reason, different languages can provide different cognitive skills to their speakers. So language actually shapes the way one thinks about many aspects of the world.
Or as Lera Bodoritsky would say:
“Each language contains a way of perceiving, categorizing and making meaning in the world, an invaluable guidebook developed and honed by our ancestors. Research into how the languages we speak shape the way we think is helping scientists to unravel how we create knowledge and construct reality and how we got to be as smart and sophisticated as we are. And this insight, in turn, helps us understand the very essence of what makes us human.”
But how do we know that it is language and not other cultural aspects which is affecting our perception? It’s simple, when we teach a language to a person, we see all these perceptions pass to the new speaker, proving what is said that learning a new language gives a new vision of the world.