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Captainess Kirk: Musings on language and culture

Captainess KirkBy Kathleen S. Kirk

In my experience with language, nothing is exactly the same when you translate it. Direct, literal translation is impossible to accomplish in many languages without corrupting, or downright destroying, meaning.

For example, in English, we can say, “He has a ball.” This is a simple idea to us, conveyed by possession and ownership, in what we believe are simple, universal terms.

And, yet, when translated into certain languages, it becomes something much different.

In Finnish, “He has a ball” becomes “Hӓnellӓ on pallo.” To translate this literally would be “He is ball.” The form of the verb “be” used here takes this phrase from a state of being to a state of ownership. It gets more complicated in Russian. That same phrase gets translated as, “У него есть мяч,” which is, in English, “At him there is ball.” This is how ownership, or the closest thing Russian has to ownership, gets conveyed. To further complicate things, let me point out that “ест” (in this circumstance “there is”) is also a tense of the verb “есть” (“eat”).

Effectively, this also allows us to argue that “У него есть мяч” can also be directly translated as “At him to eat ball,” but that is a linguistics battle for a different day. Continue reading

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