Transferring Meaning

One question that translators almost always find themselves asking is if “words have meanings that are unique to certain groups/cultures and [if they are] therefore experientially inaccessible to members of another culture”? (“The Empire Writers Back” 42)

Let’s take a word that any Massachusetts “native” will know well: “trailer-park.” OK, two words, but the concept remains in-tact: that different levels of meaning are inside of this word/phrase. Class, assumptions of social background, education level, speech performance of trailer-park inhabitants, race, quality of life, eye-sore (another word concept that won’t translate “easily”), even religion. You get the point. And what about the whole rich vocabulary that is associated with this word: “trailer-trash”, “white- trash”, and other word/phrases that point at different cultural activities and hierarchies?

Are people from “other” cultures unable to fathom the possibilities of “trailer- park” if they don’t have the word and its host of cultural referents?

What about the task of the translator in transferring this word/cultural space into Brazilian-Portuguese, for example? Does one translate the trailer-park as “favela”? As “white favela”? Will the Portuguese-reading audience comprehend the unique nature of the trailer-park if they don’t share the word? Does the translator create a space that does not exist in Brazil?

These questions point at another: “Do words have the ability to mean in the same way across cultures?” (“The Empire Writes Back” 43)

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)

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