Difficulties in the Transfer of Information between Languages
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The following difficulties are derived by Anthony Judge
from the study by Mildred Larson on 'Meaning-based translation; a guide
to cross-language equivalences'
This document is Annex 2 of Review of Frameworks for the Representation of Alternative
Conceptual Orderings as Determined by Cultural and Linguistic Contexts
1. Differences in packaging of meaning components
A concept, considered as distinct from the word by which it is conveyed, is
a recognizable unit of meaning. It may be broken down into meaning components
and as such is a bundle of meaning components.
Larson quotes Barnwell:
'In a given language, the concept unit usually, but by no means always,
is represented by a word; it may also be represented by a morpheme, or by an
idiomatic expression, or by tone, or by word order. Concepts are identified in
a given language on the principle of contrast and comparison within the system
of that language' (1980,
Although all languages have concepts, they do not have the same concepts. Each
language conceptualizes in a different manner, packaging the phenomena of reality
together in different ways and then reinforcing such distinctions by naming them.
Larson's examples include:
- (a) Existence of a single Vietnamese word to mean: 'someone leaves to go somewhere
and something happens at home so that he has to go back home'. Conversely a
'projector' may have to be named in some languages as: 'the thing that
shows pictures on the wall'.
- (b) Plurality is often conveyed by the use of a suffix on nouns or verbs or both. In
Aguarana different verb stems are used for singular and plural action.
- (c) The same meaning component may occur in several surface structure lexical items of
the English word 'sheep', whose meaning is also included in different ways in
the words 'lamb', 'ram' and 'ewe' combined with other
meanings. In Huambisa (Peru), these would be translated by the word groups 'sheep its
child', 'sheep big', and 'sheep its woman'.
Each language has its own system for arranging concepts into different parts of speech
making it risky to seek one-to-one equivalents. One language may use the verb form more
frequently, where another will seek to express the same meanings by means of a verbal noun
or an adjective. Such skeewing between the grammar and semantic structure is a device
which counteracts monotony in the presentation of information. Such devices are a part of
the style but will not accomplish the intended purpose if translated into a second
language. In order to restate the information in a second language it may be necessary to
unpack the concepts and then repackage them in a manner appropriate to the concept scheme
of that language.
2. Differences in relationships between concepts
(a) Generic-specific: the relationship of one concept as being more
generic and another as more specific is reflected in the lexical structure
of all languages and their taxonomies (e.g. in the case of plants or animals).
There are situations in many languages where the same word form is used at
several different levels within such taxonomies (e.g. man). The generic-specific
relationships of two languages tend to be quite different. For example, in
the Philippines 'rice' is the generic term for all forms of grain so
that 'wheat' might be translated as 'rice called wheat'. Slavic
languages do not have separate words for arm and hand which are together denoted by the
same term. In Isnag (Philippines) the 'trunk' of a tree is thought of as being
in two parts separately named. The Tlingit of Alaska have no general word for
'swim', instead they have many specific words for different kinds of swimming.
Larson points out that languages tend to differ most in generic terminology, rather than
specific. Whereas equivalent words can be found for specific objects or for phenomena such
as 'murder', 'lie' and 'steal', it may be very hard to find
equivalent generic words for 'bad'. The translation of such abstract
terms is often very complex, especially if the cultural contexts of the two languages
are quite different. It is to be expected that the complexity increases with
the degree of abstraction.
(b) Synonyms-antonyms: A second language may not have a specific word
equivalent for each of the synonyms of the source language. There may be more
synonyms or less. All languages have pairs of words which are antonyms, but different
languages have different sets of antonyms. Larson gives the example of the two
antonyms short/tall (vertical) and short/long (horizontal) which are covered
by one Aguarana antonym set. Some languages have a word for only one of a pair,
the other being indicated by the negative.
(c) Contrastive pairs: In all languages there are pairs of words which
differ from each other only by a single component of meaning. Larson gives as
and 'see' in which show has the additional meaning of 'cause to'
(see), similarly in the case of 'drop' and 'fall' or 'make'
and 'be'. It is not uncommon that a language will have no exact equivalent for
'show', 'drop' and 'make', but some causative form will be
used instead. Two languages may have the same concept set as far as the generic components
distinguishing each word from others in the set will be different. There may be more
lexical items in the set and the contrastive components may not match. Larson gives the
example of the set 'human' which in English has components man, woman, boy and
girl. In Aguarana the 'man' term of this set must be distinguished
as either married or unmarried.
(d) Semantic sets: The lexical items of a language represent a network
of interrelated meanings that has been called a cognitive network. No two languages
will have equivalent sets of terms referring to a particular domain. This is
clearer in the case of tangible objects, but is also true in the case of verbs.
Larson gives the example of Bora (Peru) in which a number of verb roots are used
to describe different forms of
'coming' and 'going'. Which do not match the English verbs.
The roots include: go, go to, going arrive at, come, come to, coming arrive at,
and come back to.
3. Multiple senses of lexical items
(a) Secondary sense: In addition to the primary sense a lexical item
may have secondary meanings. These are dependent on the context in which a
word is used. Whilst a second language will often have a lexical equivalent
for the primary meaning, the secondary meanings in the two languages tend not
to match at all.
(b) Figurative sense: This is based on associative relations with the
primary meaning. It is correct to say 'The kettle is boiling' even though a kettle
cannot itself 'boil'. Such metonymy occurs in most languages but a specific case
in one language will tend not to have an exact equivalent in another. Larson indicates
that 'The Prime Minister barred laborers from entering the country' may
be completely misunderstood if the second language does not indicate that the
action was in fact carried out by subordinates. Other forms of figurative expression
are synecdoche, idiom, euphemism and hyperbole.
4. Differing situational meanings
Lexical items may also reflect attitudes and emotions in addition to conveying
purely factual information. Such connotative meanings are often culturally conditioned
such that in one culture a word may have a positive connotation whereas in a
second the equivalent word might have a negative connotation. This may be due
to the negative or positive taboos which have developed in the cultures.
5. Differing collocational possibilities
Any given lexical item will tend to occur in a language with a particular range
of other lexical items. Larson gives as example 'having' or 'suffering'
trouble, which in other languages might be given as 'seeing' or
'drinking' trouble. The meaning is the same but different words are combined to
indicate that meaning. Each word has different collocational possibilities and the
collocational range of equivalent words between languages will not be identical,
especially in the secondary meanings. In Amuzgo (Mexico) one of the two words for
'love' collocates only with higher to lower status (e.g. man to wife)
and the other with lower to higher status (e.g. child to parent).
6. Absence of lexical equivalents
Differences in culture result in situations in which a concept in one language
is unknown in the receptor language and no lexical equivalents exist to convey
it. This may be due to differences in climate, customs, beliefs or worldviews.
When the concept is a key concept in the information the problem becomes even
more critical. In searching for approximate equivalents Larson points out that
it is important to distinguish between form and function. An equivalent may be
of different form (e.g. pen vs quill) but have the same function (e.g. writing)
or be of similar form (e.g. dog) but have different functions (e.g. pet vs hunting
dog). In the worst case there may be equivalents for neither form nor function.
Larson gives the example of 'sheep' which in the Middle East have a
function of being a 'sacrifice for sin'. In the Amazon sheep-like animals do not
occur nor is there any notion comparable to 'sacrifice for sin'. Further
difficulty exists when the information makes importantdistinctions between concepts for
which even the generic equivalent is unknown in the receptor language. Larson gives the
example of distinctions having to be made between church, mosque and synagogue when the
generic equivalent 'shelter used for religious purposes' may have little
meaning in the receptor culture. The situation is further complicated when the
key word also carries a symbolic meaning.
7. Differences in propositional structure
The difficulty of translation between languages involves much more than the
problem of lexical equivalents. The structure used to convey the information
in the source language needs to be abandoned if the information is to be embodied
in the receptor language without loss or distortion of meaning.
Whereas meaning components are combined into concepts, concepts are themselves
combined to form propositions. A proposition is the smallest unit of communication
according to Larson in that concepts only acquire meaning in communication when
they occur with other concepts. Larson distinguishes between propositions may
be governed by their situational context whether as commands, questions or states.
The latter imbue the proposition with an illocutionary force that is intended
to encourage or solicit action by the receiver (command), to gain information
from the receiver (question), or to give information to the receiver (statement).
No real communication can be carried on without the inclusion of such situational
(a) Event propositions : In the case of event propositions there is a
great deal of skewing between form and meaning in the source language which is
different from the appropriate skewing between the form and meaning in the receptor
language. For example the relations of things and attributes with the central
event may be encoded in several ways in the source language, depending on the
context, and in several ways in the receptor language. One relation may also
be encoded by several forms and that one form may itself be used to encode several
relations. English for example, allows for long complicated grammatical encoding
of complex concepts. But in some langagues the proposition will need to be translated
by more than one sentence so that new concepts can be added one by one, possibly
with a characteristic sylistic redundancy. There is therefore no one-to-one correspondence
between the number of propositions and the number of sentences.
(b) State propositions : A state proposition consists of a topic and a
comment and the relations between them. Such relations are encoded in a variety
of ways in a given language, but forms which indicate these relations may also
be used with several different meanings and in figurative ways. There is no literal
correspondence between semantic structure and grammatical structure with a different
skewing in the source and the receptor languages.
(c) Passive constructions : The function of the passive construction is
very different in different languages. In East Africa and some parts of Asia
the passive is used only to attribute negative feelings or a sense of unpleasantness
to the information conveyed. In Hebrew the passive is used to avoid mention of
the name of God and thus indicate respect. Many non-Indo-European languages have
no passive construction thus requiring the actors to be rendered explicit in
the receptor language. Some languages use the passive morethan the active form.
(d) Abstract nouns : Abstract nouns represent events or attributes rather
than things and always represent a skewing of the grammatical structure and the
semantic structure. West African and other languages often use a verb where an
abstract noun is used in English and thus require that the actors be rendered
(e) Genitive constructions : The genitive constructions of English and
other European languages create difficulties because the one surface form is
used to encode a variety of non-explicit meanings to the point of deliberate
(f) Negation : Languages handle negatives in many different ways in the
grammatical structure. A negative in the source information will not always be
translated by a negative in the receptor language. A double negative may be translated
as an affirmative. Poor placement of negatives can lead to communication of the
8. Propositional clusters and other groupings
Propositions may be grouped in any information to form propositional clusters
which in turn may form semantic paragraphs. Depending on the amount, type and
complexity of the information, these may be grouped to form episodes, which can
combine into episode clusters and parts, together forming the discourse as a
whole. Just as concepts within a proposition are linked by relations, so propositions
are linked by communication relations. The latter may also be used to link the
more comprehensive semantic groupings. Such communication relations may be handled
very differently in different languages.
(a) Addition and support relations : Propositions of equal significance
have an additive relation in any communication. However if one is of less significance
it then has a supportive relation to the other. Such addition or support relations
may or may not involve a time dimension and thus be qualified as chronological
or non-chronological. In the former case this may be a sequential or simultaneous
relation. In Aguarana, for example, the sequence relation may be indicated by
repeating the verb. Some languages require that the chronological order of events
be respected in the grammatical structure. Keley-i (Philippines) has two words
equivalent to 'and' in English to
distinguish between addition relations which are semantically and non-semantically
(b) Orientation and clarification relations : In relations of the orientation
type the supporting semantic unit orients by adding information concerning time,
location, subject matter, etc. In relations of the clarification type the supporting
semantic unit restates or explains the unit it supports. Languages have very
different ways of encoding a given relation. Larson contrasts the situation of
comparison relations in English where there are three degrees of comparison (e.g.
big, bigger, biggest) with the many languages having only two degrees of comparison.
(c) Logical relations : In relations of the logical type the supporting
semantic unit provides argumentation in support of the principal semantic unit.
Seven forms of logical semantic relation are distinguished: reason-result, means-result,
purpose-means, concession-contraexpectation, grounds-conclusion, grounds-exhortation,
condition- consequence. The order in which anypropositions are grouped to reflect
such relations varies amongst languages. Thus in English the purpose usually
follows the main clause whereas in Upper Asaro it comes first in the grammatical
structure. In some languages the reason proposition precedes the principal proposition
in others it is the last proposition.
(d) Skewing of groupings : The grammatical groupings of one language do
not necessarily match those of another. In some languages however there is no
clear unit between the clause and the paragraph. On the other hand some languages
may encode in one sentence the semantic content of several paragraphs of information
in the source language.
9. Differences in cohesive devices
Propositional groupings at different levels are primarily hierarchical in structure.
Cohesive devices are used throughout the discourse to weave it together. Cohesive
lines cross over boundaries between groupings. The relational structure is
itself an important cohesive element. Span, or the continuation of a given
participant or setting is another, as is semantic domain or topic. Different
languages make different use of a mix of devices such as pronouns, substitute
words, verb affixes, deictics, pro-verbs, conjunctions and special particles
to ensure a degree of cohesion appropriate to the language. Indo- European
languages are for example rich in conjunctions which may encode deep structure
relations. Some Papua New Guinea languages have only two. In other languages
the temporal conjunctions may be encoded by verb affixes.
10. Information load
This is the rate at which information, especially new information, may be introduced
into a communication. Some languages introduce information much more slowly
than others. Others use complicated noun phrases which allow for information
to be introduced more rapidly. Within the same languages the information load
will also vary (e.g. novels versus technical manuals), as it does between individuals.
There are special problems relating directly to information load:
(a) Known and unknown information: Presence of information in the source
language which has no equivalent in the receptor language.
(b) Old and new information: Difference in approach to handling old
and new information between source and receptor languages
(c) Expectancy chains: Difference in expectancy chains between languages,
namely the words or phrases which are considered likely to follow other words
(d) Redundancy: Mismatch of redundancy patterns and functions between
languages resulting in communications which are either sketchy or overloaded.
(e) Implicit and explicit information: Information required to render
a communication meaningful may only be available in the, possibly remote, context
of the information provided or in the communication situation itself.
11. Communication situation
Meaning is determined in part by: who the author was, the purpose of the communication,
for whom the information was intended, the relationship between the author
and the audience, the culture within which the information was generated, the
degree of commonality between source and receptor.
(a) Author: In this respect the following are significant: intent (some
languages begin each discourse with an appropriate performative statement),
style appropriate to a particular discourse, emotional tone (which is often
the key to communication effectiveness), and attitude (some languages have
lexical signals to indicate the attitude of the author toward the information).
(b) Audience: In this respect the following are significant: effective
information transfer depends on the extent to which the information has been
adjusted to the level of education of the audience, to the cultural context
of the audience and to the purpose of the audience (or one with which they
can become sympathetic). In some languages special attention may have to be
given to the social relationship between author and audience to render the
information significant. These can involve questions of age, status and appropriate
recognition of superiority and inferiority.
(c) Worldview: The worldview implicitly held by the author and that
of the audience can call for special attention. There are examples of cultures
in which it is assumed that everybody does as he pleases ignoring levels of
authority. Information from another culture assuming the value of authority
structures runs the risk of appearing meaningless. In Melanesia there is a
fundamental recognition of the network of powers influencing a person. This
would render information from other cultures of limited significance unless
the relationship to such powers was made clear. To render information meaningful
in Japanese, distinctions of social status must be rendered explicit, even
though they may not be present in the original form of the information.