Impossible To Translate

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Impossible to translate ...

A while ago on a business trip to Spain I was asked this question:

Cómo llamar a un ascensor en Inglés

The answer expected is, of course, "a lift".

No. The actual answer is "Con su dedo." - "With your finger."

How can this be translated into English? The original question, when translated literally, is "How do you call a lift in English?" The answer now is obvious and unsurprising. The colloquial translation of the original is "What do you call a lift in English?", and now the joke doesn't work at all.

It simply doesn't translate.

Sometimes when I'm talking to people, trying to explain something, I can see that it's just not working. They aren't hearing what I'm saying - the thoughts from my head are just not getting there. They simply don't get it. This doesn't mean they're stupid, it doesn't mean they're incapable, it simply means that they don't have the same basis from which to work, and the "explanation", doesn't.

Language is an amazing thing, and the more you study it, the more you realise it simply can't work. The fact that we can communicate at all is quite stunning.

I finish with two quotations from Terry Pratchett. The first points out the different in attitude that perhaps is driven by the recognition that there are different languages, and lack of understanding is often down to the listener.

A significant difference between Europeans and Americans:
  • A European says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with me?
  • An American says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with you?
The second, as Terry often does, says it all better than I ever could.

I think perhaps the most important problem is that we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another where the best fruit is.

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