An untranslatable mind

We tend to think of translation as a problem of grammar but a brilliant post on Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists demonstrates how even concepts about what the mind is can vary across languages.

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body…

Interestingly, Russia, which kind of sits between East and West uses “dusa” as the counterpart to the psychological part of the person. “Dusa” is often translated as “soul”, but also sometimes as “heart” or “mind.” “Dusa” is associated with feelings, morality, and spirituality. The “dusa” is responsible for the ability to connect with other people. This meaning seems to lie somewhat more with the Eastern conception than with the highly cognitive concept of “mind.”

The Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog is generally excellent by the way.

I also recommend this great post on female attractiveness, wait-to-hip ratio and why evolutionary psychology needs spend more time working with other cultures before it can really talk about likely evolutionary explanations.

Link to ‘How Universal Is The Mind?’

13 thoughts on “An untranslatable mind”

  1. tonight I’m rushing through my mail, and ready to sleep, but in translations, i must say, that while reading the Bible in my earlier years, I thought to myself that heart and soul could be the very seat of our existence… sorry not to expand upon that, but it’s just a private thought that I would like to air… read “very seat” literally…

  2. The mind vs. the brain is a very difficult question; the idea of dualism vs. monism is tricky, so I wouldn’t be surprised if different languages have specific words for the seat of human consciousness; after all, different areas of the world have different overall philosophies of what constitutes the world around them, who they are in that world, and what the source of both are.

  3. Interesting and thanks for the link. I like the suggestion of considering the way concepts are considered by looking at other cultures but also the idea that we process ‘thoughts’ as some kind of non verbal, non image based entity that we (obviously) can’t actually describe but maybe comes close to being a manifestation of the word metaphor.

    This is not my own idea of course but i would be interested to any pointers to more reading on this.

  4. This article aims at precision but doesn’t arrive: brain, mind, soul, even spirit all have distinct areas of meaning when used in discussion. The problem is they are rarely used consistently even in the same articles. Language-meanings bleed so easily, they are so relative, to context, intent etc etc.

    There is no answer to this, because people are imprecise, language can be vague, meaning is relative. Language itself, see Marvin Minsky, cannot say what it means because our brains are not functionally capable of focussing so intently.

    Sort of.

  5. Mind is a metaphor that reflects the values of each culture and the different values within a culture. This issue extends to most any nebulous concept. For example for Socrates and Plato, the soul was immortal and was reincarnated. However, for the more scientific Aristotle the soul was simply the whole entity. For Aristotle a tree or an axe would have a soul as much as a human, as when he used the term he simply meant that the entity was whole or complete.

    Even today it is usually unclear what people mean when they talk about souls, since clearly it is not a special substance or essense. Dualism is very dead. It seems that most people mean a spirit in the sense of an attitude when they talk about souls.

    Andy Clark in his book, “Supersizing the Mind” takes the western concept of mind, which tends to be very individualistic or even isolationist, and extends it by considering what aids we use to extend our mental capabilities. This is an adventure, he points out, that started even before the invention of writing. He hesitates to extend it to any sort of “group mind”, a wise decision, but he does recognize how much society influences the development of minds so much so that the mind can be thought of as a social project or institution.

  6. In Hindi, or rather in Hinduism, there are 3 notions associated with the ‘invisible’ /subjective aspects of a person as compared to the 5 ‘visible’/ objective aspects of a person (body made of panch tatva) ; these 3 aspects are respectively called mann, buddhi and ahankar.
    The first one is closely aligned with Maum of Koreans as in it is where emotions, feelings, motivations, will reside. Mann is frequently translated as mind in english.
    The second is more cognitive in nature. Buddhi is translated as Intellect and it is considered better to be governed by Buddhi than being governed by Mann.
    The third , called Ahankar can be translated to a notion of Self- I, the doer. Here, as contravened by Hinduism, one falsely starts having the notions that one is in control and one is actually doing things – a sense of arrogance/ pride.

    Of course the scriptures exhort one to rise above the 5 matter parts (body) and the 3 subjective parts (mind, intellect and I, the doer sense of self) and identify with atman -which is pure indestructible, unending and unlimited ‘consciousness’.

    I intend to do a fuller blog post on this and will link it here, if possible.

  7. I’ve sometimes thought that neuroscience should be thought of as translation and not explanation. There’s something about “translation” that has space for something more human. I know it’s only marginally related…

  8. I just wrote a post on my blog about the flaws in learning a language that us language learners often make. Same idea as this post, that certain word cant be translated – but I also touched on the need to understand foreign words through a modelled manner as to assimilating it to the way we think in our language.

    Thought people might like a language learner’s perspective on this.

    Here’s the URL:

  9. Interesting synergy with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in Flesh looking at the case for our concepts being largely compounded of what they call metaphors built on our embodied experience. The hypothesis is that humans start building concepts based on embodied experience (space, movement, grasping,…). These then meet the symbol systems of the culture in which the child is born leading to interesting and subtle differences like “mind/dusa/…”.

    Buddhism also has no word (in Pali) for what we call mind. There are words for major aspects of mental experience but no catch-all which (supposedly) stands for the whole.

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