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  • Writer's pictureJarmo Honkala

Universal human meaning: Is there a shared experience beneath our words?



One of the side-effects of the rise of machine translation is the idea that words and sentences should function like numbers in an equation. But as the world’s many unfortunate machine translation errors have shown, translation is not just about words: It’s about understanding the context, getting beneath the words and choosing the best way to convey the meaning.


For example, in English, the phrase “And pigs might fly!” is used to express disbelief or suggest that something is impossible. In the Finnish version, “Kun lehmät lentävät,” the metaphorical strategy is the same, but the choice of farm animal is different: For Finns, the flying cow is the ultimate symbol of absurdity. In Italian phrase “Quando voleranno gli asini,” refers to flying donkeys.


Despite the different animals being discussed, the meaning of this phrase is the same, and has nothing to do with pigs, cows, or donkeys. These shared metaphorical strategies demonstrate that whether we’re in London or Helsinki, Beijing or Madrid, communicating between cultures is a matter of identifying the universal human meaning at the heart of the text to be translated.


Until recently this was a surprisingly controversial idea. Many linguists believed that the language we speak dictates the possible range of our experiences, meaning that people who speak different languages might as well be from different species. This idea is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.


The idea that words dictate feelings and behavior gave George Orwell the idea for Newspeak, the reduced, restrictive vocabulary in the novel 1984. This sinister language was designed to make revolutionary ideas “literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” Luckily for anyone with a lingering terror of the torture chamber “Room 101” in the novel (and the movie), research in linguistics during the last few decades show that human spirit can’t be contained so easily.


Nowadays, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis exists in a weakened state. Though it would take the discovery of telepathy to prove that the human brain is the same in any language, research has shown that while language may dictate how we express ourselves, that doesn’t mean we have different thoughts or feelings. This is great news for translators, if not for any aspiring Big Brother.


As discussions and content can originate anywhere on the planet nowadays, we need to move away from the idea that language keeps us apart and focus on the things we share instead. By digging underneath the cultural references, and into the universal human experience beneath, we can make sure that nothing is untranslatable.


This piece originally posted in Transfluent’s blog in 2012 by our former CEO Jani Penttinen.

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