One of the major obstacles to machine translation, the usefulness of phrasebooks, and learning languages in general. Poor understanding of this concept is common in people who have never learned a foreign language to at least semi-fluency, causes them to misapply words and leads to a false sense of security.

Basically, the problem is this: words in natural languages often cover more than one abstract concept, or cover only some aspects of a complex concept. Unfortunately, these boundaries are usually completely arbitrary, as there is no single logical mapping between words and concepts. Therefore, languages frequently differ in how they map words to meanings.

An example: the German adjective "scharf" covers several concepts:

  1. sharp (as in "this knife is sharp")
  2. hot/spicy (as in "Be careful, the curry sauce is hot")
  3. sexually attractive (as in "Look, what a babe!")
Now, while there exists an English word (hot) that covers meanings 2 and 3, it definitely doesn't cover meaning 1. However, "hot" has another meaning (in respect to temperature) that the German word does not cover - temperature-hot in German is "heiß" (which can also mean sexually-hot, but not spicy-hot).

This effect plays hell on machine translation, because the correct translation must be derived from context, but the context isn't really available yet - you are still in the stage of parsing individual words, and other words in the vicinity may also have meaning ambiguities.

A similar effect occurs with idioms and standard phrases, such as sumimasen or itte kimasu in Japanese, which have complex meanings that do not directly correspond to any English phrase, but phrasebooks often only give the most common meanings, since saying that "sumimasen" means both "I'm sorry / Excuse me" and "Thank you" would beg an explanation beyond the scope of a phrasebook. The result is that the phrases are often misapplied or misunderstood.

To summarize: words and phrases in languages other than your own will often not have a single, direct translation to your native tongue; correct usage can often be learned only from observing native speakers a lot. Don't let this phenomenon surprise you - expect it.


By the way, loanwords are not, as getzburg suggests in his wu, excluded from this rule. "Anime" is in fact a good example, as it is used for all animation, including Disney, in Japan, while to western anime fans, anime and Disney are practically antipodes. In German, the English word handy is used to mean "celphone". In Japanese, the English word cunning means "cheating in a test", and the German word arbeit is used specifically for part-time jobs (as opposed to real employment) while in German, it mens "work" in general.

There can be no "single logical mappings between words and concepts" - not even within a single language - simply because words are nothing more than words; generally-agreed symbols one after another - creating a generally-agreed "meaningful" combination. In actuality, words are just empty placeholders or pointers, if you want to put it that way - without any intrinsic or implicit content or value. It is us humans, as unique individuals, who fill those placeholders/pointers with subjective meanings that are unique to each and everyone and are entirely based on emotions.

Since there are and can never be two individuals exactly alike, there is no way a single word could have the exact same content for any two persons, unless explicitly agreed on, between those individuals. Thus, dictionary words aren't "true" or "right", they are just meanings intersubjectively agreed on by a group of people. Then again, the purpose of a dictionary is not to enforce meanings to words but, to explain - reflect, if you want - generally agreed meanings of those words at the time.

Media sells products with advertisements filled with images "giving meaning" to those empty words (words criticized by Richard Rorty) as if those words in themselves meant something and, you had to buy the product in order to become what the images are trying to associate you with. "Buy product X and you will become beautiful. Naturally, because you're worth it". See how it goes? Is it really me who is worth the product? Is it really owning the product that makes me worth something? At least, that is what many advertisements want to imply. What these advertisements also imply (but leave unsaid) is the image of what happens if you don't buy the product advertised; from that viewpoint the advertisement reads: Not buying this product makes you less worthy, less beautiful and less desirable.

No wonder people are confused and anxious.

--- Edit: May 21, 2003
Come to think of it, the Most Questionable Title for a Profession that I can think of would go somewhere along the lines of: Marketing Psychologist. O' fear ye mortal ones.
--- End of edit

Perhaps the sole exception to this rule would be some loan words. Ballet, bagel, and anime all mean the same thing in both English and French, Yiddish, and Japanese, respectively. This, of course, is a direct result of the fact that they're borrowed words. But in most cases they've been thoroughly incorporated into English, to the point that many people don't know they came from other languages.

There also exists another level to this problem. An example seems necessary. I will select a most mundane and seemingly harmless word. Take the Russian word for 'SPOON': 'Ложка' pronounced 'loshka'. If we examine the associations, we run into a few difficulties. A spoon is something that you eat with, generally made of metal, has a handle with a shallow, elongated bowl on the end. All these thoughts are also associated with 'Ложка', but their exist many others. A Russian, on hearing the word 'Ложка' is immediately confronted with the above concepts, but also with the strongly ingrained concept of punishment. It was customary to rap on the forehead an unsuspecting, misbehaving youngster at the table with spoon. Americans do not hold this association. But present in our (the American) culture is the phenomenon of the bending spoon. We have all seen (or at least heard of) a magician who can bend spoons with his or mind (The Matrix helps here). Another good example would be the idea of 'spooning', which refers to an intimate position for two people, originating with how spoons fit together nicely when stacked.
For every word, there also exists an implicit meaning and an explicit meaning. Explicit meanings evolve with the language (examples include 'coolie' and 'leatherneck'.), while implicit meanings are constantly being changed by the media.
So, in conclusion, we can see that, although a dictionary will tell us that 'spoon' and 'Ложка' are equivalent, cultural associations prove this false.
Thanks go to ideath for the 'spooning' reference, as well as the implicit/explict and poetry translation discussions. For more information, see linguistics, translation, machine translation, and russian.

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