Lost in translation

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone recently broadcast a programme that tackled the philosophy of translating between languages – discussing whether particular ideas are just harder to express in certain languages, and whether it is possible ever to tie a word to a definite meaning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m fascinated by words which don’t translate across languages, especially when they related to mental states or psychology.

One of my favourites is the Portuguese word saudade, which, as far as I can work out, refers to a type of wistful or sombre yearning for something that you’ve experienced in the past, with the underlying feeling that the wished for thing might never return and that the feeling is all that you have.

The programme looks at these issues beyond the case of single words, asking whether some sorts of thinking are a product of the language, which possibly allows for concepts to be dealt with in a different manner.

One of the most striking differences lies between analytic philosophy, largely produced by native English speakers that entails legal or scientific style reasoning as applied to concepts, and continental philosophy, which often deals with criticising the concepts of language itself and relies much more on rhetoric and analogy.

The most famous continental philosopher are French (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze etc), so this provides a useful starting point for discussing whether the different approaches to philosophy are just the result of culture, or stem from the tools of language itself.

The second part of the programme deals with W.V. Quine’s views on language, which suggest that there is no definite distinction between statements we assume are meaningful by definition (e.g. a bachelor is an unmarried man) and those which are only true with reference to the outside world (e.g. the sun is shining in London).

Interestingly, the programme avoids discussing Wittgenstein, who thought that all philosophical issues were really just difficulties brought about by language.

Anyway, a fascinating discussion of an important topic.

Link to The Philosopher’s Zone on the philosophy of language.

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