Sunday, 5 September 2010

Blogging the miracle

Language fascinates me. The more I think about language, the more I realise that it is a miracle.
Language is my bread and butter. My native language is English, but I live in Germany and am perfectly at home in German. My work is translating from German to English (and occasionally the other way). in subjects such as law, architecture, building, industry and commerce.
In this blog I will look at some of the practical issues which arise in translation, but I will also explore the mystery and the miracle of language itself.
Think about it: by making a series of noises with my mouth or pressing a number of keys on a computer keyboard, I can take you into a completely new realm. Imagine, for example that you are sitting on an elephant, stroking its course skin and looking out at the scenery around. Can you see the prairie dotted with trees? Can you see the elephant's ears and feel the wind in your face as it flaps them? Can you smell those elephant smells? But what would happen if the elephant suddenly started to run? Could you hold on, or would you fall off? Look at the ground. It is an awfully long way down.
Can you see all of this? Of course you can't! Look up from your computer or the printed page ‑ how many elephants can you really see? None, of course.
But a moment ago you "saw" an elephant. The words in my description put a picture in your mind, and "in your mind's eye" you saw an elephant. Why? That is what language does. However skillful or clumsy my words may be ‑ when I mentioned the elephant, you "saw" the elephant. That is the power of words.
Words are the raw material of literature. They are the building blocks of contracts, police reports, tourist guides and school textbooks. They make up great stage dialogues, they enable you to buy a train ticket. They are the stuff of business meetings, church sermons, news broadcasts and blinding arguments in the kitchen. You can use them to inspire others to noble deeds and high ideals. Or you can use them to tell lies and deceive others.
But sometimes words are completely useless. Put me in the middle of the Amazon Forest or the Russian Tundra, and my words in English or German are probably useless. In spite of my linguistic training. I am lost. There are thousands of languages in the world, and in most of those languages I am speechless and illiterate.
Do you share my fascination with language? Perhaps you would like to watch this space. Let's see what we can discover.

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