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Translation Can Make or Break Communication. Here’s Why

One of the great frustrations of trying to communicate ideas and beliefs from other cultures is that other languages do not always have a parallel, much less an exact equivalent, in English. Sometimes not only is there no word for a particular practice or constellation of beliefs—the concept so central to understanding one culture may be literally unthinkable in another.

One difficulty is translating from a mythical/metaphorical culture to a literal-minded one. Translating from Middle Eastern languages to European ones, for example, can be extremely hard, because word-for-word translations seldom makes sense. They are like those cheesy assembly instruction sheets written in a failed attempt at English that we all love to make fun of.

Translators often grasp for a word that will be familiar to their readers. Unfortunately that familiar word can totally distort meaning and mislead the reader. So the text seems to make sense, but the reader gets the totally wrong impression. The familiar word makes them think they understand something they really, really do not—because the translator chose a word that was familiar. But did not really communicate.

That’s why translation is more of an art than a science. The translator needs some understanding of both cultures in order to convey the meaning and not just match up some words.

That is also why it is so hard to talk about the various kinds of spirits or supernatural beings revered in different cultures. English has a very limited metaphysical vocabulary and a generally literal-minded habit of thought. All supernatural beings of any type in other languages and cultures tend to be translated as “gods” or “goddesses” for example, when their meaning in their local belief system is not even close to god or goddess.

Belief systems such as animism and shamanism are particularly hard for westerners to grasp. The word shaman, for example, only became common in English after the publishing success of anthropologist Michael Harner’s bestselling book, The Way of the Shaman.

Publishers jumped in and began putting the word shaman in book titles (usually inappropriately), because it sells books. Shaman replaced medicine man or medicine woman as the new fad word for translating the title of any kind of holy person, healer, magician, or herbalist in any other culture.

Most of the time it is misused. Often its usage is wildly inaccurate. English speakers have been grossly misled about what the term means—and doesn’t mean.

We struggle to discuss any type of metaphysical system in English, especially the transitional belief systems between pure animism and the later theism. In this blog we refer to animal deities, knowing that many readers will automatically misread deities as gods. Though we do try to define the term to make the important distinction, I’m not sure how well we really succeed.

The whole field of anthropology would benefit from more accurate translations. So would all kinds of metaphysical and cross-cultural discussions among lay people for that matter.

Popular publishing would be revolutionized by accurate terminology for describing truly foreign concepts and belief systems in English. Meanwhile, publishers continue to put out potboilers with terminology so sloppy that readers come away with utterly false ideas about cultures and concepts that have been presented to them in common terms that completely distort the topic.

Is accurate translation important? Ponder this. What if a technical maintenance manual for a new kind of military weapon is mistranslated? Think of the potential for disaster. Or how about operating instructions for a new type of nuclear plant?

Why talk about any kind of philosophy or study any other type of culture or belief system if the language is so inaccurate that the topics are misrepresented? It’s a waste of time. And misunderstandings can be disastrous, even deadly, as modern history has shown us.

So when you need a translation of a text, hire a specialist. You need a translator who can translate the terms according to the meaning in a particular field, not just in general usage.

You need more than just someone who “knows the language.” You need a translation service staffed by people who understand how different cultures communicate and have the skill to make truly foreign concepts comprehensible to members of a very different culture.

Posted in Animal Deities, Modern Musings, Shamanism.

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