Friday, 4 March 2011

concept-based translation

I read once in a science periodical speaking about human evolution that if one could somehow bring a homo sapiens from 100,000 years ago (the earliest instance of human existence as us) that that person would have the exact same intellectual capacities as us. "Stone-age" is not a species distinction but merely a geologic period in the geological time scale. I know this is contrary to many peoples' way of defining "race" and "ethnicity" but it is sound science based on analysis of cranial morphology, among many other factors that define us as a species.

There is an axiomatic principle also in linguistics that states that any human language can be translated into any other human language. Being an axiom, it does not state "how" this translation would happen but only that it can be done (and is done everyday) ignoring the quality of the translation for the time being.

Inuktitut is, as I said somewhere in this blog, a polysynthetic language that builds up phrases from morphemes (or atoms of meaning). Being so, it is a language that is amenable to, and based on concepts. What I mean here is that a root word can be use in more than one way or context, exactly how "new" scientific terms are coined in discourse. The root "tuqu" (for the conception of "mortality" or "suspectibility to death"), for example, can be used in the context of "death" itself but also to cessation/deterioration of vitality (as when oxygen and blood is deprived to "sleeping" limbs) and turning of leaves.

There are many mistranslated concepts like "radioactivity" (which is translated as "that which will never end" contrary to the concept itself of nuclear instability and decay) and, more insideously, "cancer" is commonly translated as "terminal or incurable illness" because the term was unfortunately coined without the possibility of understanding or appeal to the histology of cancer cells that define them as "neoplasia" (new (and unmitigated) growth of cells).

Now, I want to be absolutely clear that I do not in any way blame Inuktitut translators being myself a translator. I think the Inuit translators provide inestimable service to Inuit. What I'm talking about here is the dangers of pat explanations and unvoiced assumptions of "professionals" and/or "experts" whose words and word-formation that translators are excepted to translate on the spot.

I've always advocated for fidelity and quality of information and developing research skills of translators whose understanding of words in one language and similar enough words in another language we rely on for cross-linguistic understanding. How I've approached this problem of fidelity and quality of sometimes highly technical concepts is to read from many sources as possible, and I rarely count on just one entry of word definition but compare and study the logic behind the ideas.

Fortunately, basic scientific concepts and principles are, invariably by nature, simple and logically derived. This may seem strange that abstract scientific concepts would be simple but they are. It is how they're explained by the specialists that tend to blur the root and source of the ideas because not all specialists are also teachers and pedagogues. But good writers are (by nature) and the best ones tend to talk about the source of the concepts and basic ideas behind technical-speak in logically productive ways.

Good writing lays behind and make possible "concept-based translation" so I encourage the cultivation of love of reading. Directed and discerning reading (and critical thinking) comes with familiarity.


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