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15 Apr The Myth of Inexpressibility

IglooI have often heard how the the variety of Eskimo words for snow is more linguistically rich than any other language. I learned many words in Japanese for different types rain. I agree that the richness, and the simplicity, and elegance of describing different snow types with different words is remarkable. But I don’t think the absence of certain forms of expressiveness can be called a deficit in any other language. If other languages needed more words for snow, they would be coined and come into use based on need. There are ways to translate culturally unique words or expressions, that often replace one word with more than one word, or use the word itself followed by an explanation.

I just read an article in which the following assertion was made: “There is a common expression that is widely used in South Indian languages that can’t be translated into English no matter how hard you try.” Let’s look at it, consider the cultural context, and see if inexpressibility really exists, and if are any any words, phrases or concepts that can’t be translated into a specific language.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 6 #17

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Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Imagine two grown-up people A and B who meet on the street in South India. B is with her son. When A meets B, A feels that it would be impolite to not inquire about B’s son.

Indian Woman and Her SonSo, A asks B an open question about B’s son.

B replies, with a big smile and slow polite nods: “This is my 2nd son.”

What is the question that A would have asked B, to elicit that response from B?

It is impossible to frame an open question in English that would elicit the answer that B gave.

But this exchange is something that South Indian parents have all the time.

When two South Indian parents run into each other, it is highly likely that one might ask the other (in their language) something like, “Oh, what a cute little boy/girl/child! Whichth son of yours is this?”

The other parent would then reply very proudly: “This is my eldest son/daughter/child” or “This is my 2nd son/daughter/child”.

There is no way to ask someone in English that question because the word or even the concept of “whichth” doesn’t exist in English (and possible doesn’t exist in any European language).”

First of all, my wife and I have often been asked a question that is structurally different, but with similar or identical communicative goals (politeness and curiosity) and outcomes (polite pride and the ordinal position of the child in the family). The question, in American English, is probably structurally different because of cultural reasons: families are typically smaller, and the position in the family may have fewer implications. The question usually comes out as: “Is he your first?”

Ordinal position questions in English are common. “Which slide are you on?” “Which book in the series is that?” “Which chapter contains that quote?” The fact that the open question: “Which son of yours is this?” is not used frequently in English, is cultural. With smaller families, it’s simply not as relevant as the one that I have often heard, which may have more to do with the mother’s experience than the child’s ordinal position. The idea that you need to preserve in the translation proces the attribute that the question is an open question, is important. But I submit that it does not rise to the level of inexpressibility.

Let’s Consult the Dictionary

DictionaryMerriam-Webster says that inexpressible means “not capable of being expressed :  indescribable.”

Cultural differences in human interaction patterns are beautiful, and important to capture. If you translated, the encounter into English as: “Which son of your is this?” with the reply “This is my second son.” English readers would not have a problem understanding the exchange, or even relating to the mother’s obvious sense of pride in family.

For all I know, this is a weak example of inexpressibility, and there could be many others that are much more problematic. But I believe that translation can preserve culturally unique phenomena, and even if there is no one word in the target language to correspond to one word in the source language, accurate and elegant translation is possible.

Inexpressible joy, inexpressible awe, inexpressible horror — these things I can accept. There is a place for the word “inexpressible” in the vocabulary. But the universal translator should be able to tip-toe around words and phrases that have no counterparts in other languages, and still deliver a good symbolic representation of the intent of the original author.

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