On Translation

After almost 10 years, I am reading Amy Tan’s book, “The Opposite of Fate” a memoir. I have always enjoyed Tan’s writing and I have enjoyed this book very much. With her linguistics background she has great insight to her own writing process and to the ways that people around her use language. One of the parts that I connected with is her description of the ways her own awareness of two languages and what it means.  Tan warns of making comparisons in translation. In The Opposite of Fate she writes:

“Having listened to both Chinese and English, I tend to be suspicious of any comparisons made between the two languages. Typically, one language– that of the person who is doing the comparing– is used as the standard, the benchmark for a logical form or expression. And so the other language is in danger of being judged by comparison deficient or superfluous, simplistic or unnecessarily complex, melodious, or cacophonous.”

This is often a danger I have observed in making similar comparisons, especially in making judgements about children’s linguistic development. If one doesn’t really know or understand the developmental milestones in a given language it is nearly impossible (except at a very gross level) to know if a child has a language delay or impairment.

On the other hand, we have made great strides in the field. I remember in my early days as an SLP when people didn’t think twice about translating a test of grammar from English to another language. I think now, in the field we are very aware that different languages have different structures and that the grammatical systems work differently.

On Friday, Larry Leonard spoke at UT. One of the things that I really like about his work is that he is interested in testing out theories of language impairment across different languages. For a good explanatory theory of LI, it has to work in different languages, even if those languages have different grammatical rules. In addition to English, he has studied and gave examples based on his work in Swedish, German, and Italian.

For bilinguals, it’s more difficult to know what language impairment looks like because we don’t know to a large extent, what typical bilingualism looks like developmentally. However, there is more and more research that helps us to understand the normal trajectory of bilinguals’ two languages. We are starting to understand what kinds of errors do (and which ones don’t) indicate a language impairment in bilinguals.

Despite advances in the field, we do need to keep remembering that although one can use any language to express thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they way one does this is going to be different because of different grammar, word choices, and ways of interacting. Tan’s words ring true to me, we cannot simply translate and then on the basis of one language find another language deficient. Similarly, we cannot expect that every language works in the same way.

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