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Howard Rheingold in 1989 on the untranslatable

Written By: daveski on December 12, 2009 2 Comments

Howard Rheingold, an innovator in social media in education, virtual communities, and political participation (and regular instructor at Berkeley’s iSchool!), mentioned an article he wrote in 1989 for the NY Times on Twitter today, filling in for regular language commentator William Safire. The article’s titled “On Language, Succinctly Spoken“, and gives many examples of terms that have no easy translation across languages and cultures, or as he writes,

foreign words, or a marriage of foreign and English words, that succinctly conjure up notions that would have required many more words if expressed only in English.

One of the really interesting quotes from this article comes from a certain Mary M. Stolzenbac of Virginia, who writes of the Spanish word “estrenar” (to wear, use, and show an item for the first time), ”After learning the word and using it for several years in Latin America, I missed it sorely.”

It made me think…what words do I, and any of us who have life experiences important and trivial in other languages, “miss”? (“노을” is surely still one of them!) What role do these words play in our lives, even as we speak a different language than the one these words come from?

And other questions, connected to the seemingly ever-present ideas of Sapir, Whorf and others more recent, loom in the background: is true translation, even when it takes a lot of words, ever even possible? Or is there an inherent dishonesty at some level in saying that networks of words, as a form of social media, are translatable across languages? 🙂

그리고 이 블로그 플래트폼인 워드프레스가  왜 내 인용표를 제대로 안 나타내주는 걸까요? (and why aren’t my quotation marks being ‘translated’ right by WordPress?!)

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2 Responses to “Howard Rheingold in 1989 on the untranslatable”

  1. Tes on: 15 December 2009 at 6:40 pm

    There are several German words that pop up in my thoughts and I cannot, at the time, translate them without much circumlocution. They invoke associations and meanings that seem more precise to me than the English words.

    On the flip side, I wonder if there are German words the Germans miss, as anglicized terms replace the German ones among younger generations. For example, the term “timen” is bewildering. Does “timen” carry the same meaning for German speakers as “messen” does / did?

  2. daveski on: 19 December 2009 at 10:44 am

    Tes, I thought that was an interesting question but, not speaking German myself, held back a bit on replying immediately. i actually sent an email to a few German-speaking colleagues, and this is what one of them said:

    ‘messen’ by itself can not be replaced by ‘timen’; its rough equivalent would be ‘to measure’, and it would need an object. ‘timen’ on the other hand is specifically measuring a time span, as in sports for example. but that probably doesn’t add much to the discussion…”

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