Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The problem with translations

Before embarking on the next set of essays, we need to consider something.

Much of what I am going to be writing about is translated from languages with little to no relationship to English, such as Arabic, classical Persian and Turkish. Because of this, confusion can ensue if we are not careful.

When looking at the meanings of words it is very important to understand the cultural context of their use.

for instance, I have been translating Patanjali's Yoga Sutras for a while now and I often have to do a lot more study to understand the context in which a word or phrase was used than to understand the "base meaning".

As an example, in English the words "marvelous", "fantastic", and "amazing" have very different meanings in context today than they did a hundred years ago. If this is not taken into consideration, the meaning of a sentence can get quite skewed.

To give another example, most people here are familiar with the aphorism of Jesus (as) "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven".

Today, when we read this it most often invokes an image of a large, gangly-legged beast fully laden with packs trying to squeeze its head through a Nicholson #12 sewing needle. But is this what a fisherman 2000 ago in Galilee would have thought of? The answer is no, most likely not.

As most of us know, if we give it any thought, Kleenex is a brand name for a paper tissue used for wiping your nose, but the word has entered common usage as ANY tissue paper used for this purpose regardless of brand. It is so common an understanding that my spell checker didn't even blink when I typed out the word here.

So, 2000 years ago, sailors in the Middle-East used a lot of rope and cord. One kind of heavy cord was made out of, you guessed it, camel hair. It became common to refer to this kind of cord as "camel" ("Hey! Ben Yeshua, cut me five cubits of 'camel'")

Furthermore, a fisherman in the Galilee area 2000 years ago, when you say to him "needle", is not going to think of a thin, delicate, sewing needle of today but of the huge, wide-eyed things that they used to mend nets and repair sails.

So the metaphor is going to have a very different feel to its original, intended audience than it will for a reader today. So much so that the meaning could be totally different for them than it would be for an uninformed reader of today.

Please bear this in mind when we talk about things like "Chi, Ki, Prana, Ruh, Nafs and such-like. While we have one cultural understanding of these terms today, the original meanings of the words will be found to be quite a bit different.

One example of what I am talking about here is the word "guru" which has a strong connotation of the mystical in its western usage that was not, and is not found in other places. In some places guru is the proper form of address today instructor, such as an elementary school teacher.

So it is not marvelous to imagine that even when we read the same words exactly as spoken several centuries ago, we may not come up with the meaning that the speaker intended.

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