The Limits of Language

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Wittgenstein

This is a topic that I have been thinking a lot about for the past couple of weeks – in fact, I’ve even wrote a couple of posts touching on this idea.  In general, language shapes our thinking and our perception of the world – if there is something that is unexpressible in language, we then try our hardest to find a way to express it in language, and more often than not, we will usually take the way that we have found to express it and consider the actual thing to be expressed to be constrained by the language we have chosen.

This applies to many things.  It applies to 神, or God – two concepts which are translated from Japanese to English as the same word, but are, in reality, concepts that are very much different if taken in the historical context of the two different languages.  This also applies even among the same languages – two different linguistic dialects have appeared in America, for example, where simple, foundational words such as “racism”, “sexism”, and even “theory” have come to mean different things based upon who is saying them (if you feel the need to argue this, you will not understand this post, and you should make an effort to.)

My language shapes my worldview, and my worldview shapes my language.

What I find most fascinating about studying Japanese is actually not the language.  The language is interesting and challenging, to be sure, and I mine a lot of interesting and useful things out of the most basic of studies (why, for example, does 桜 mean both “cherry tree” and “horse meat”?) but I view learning Japanese more as expanding my worldview – they have a completely different set of cultural assumptions that are coded into their language, and to learn those is to put mine in more stark relief.  What is encoded in my language that is so obvious to me that I take it for granted?

Politeness, for example, is a fascinating topic, because both Japanese and English have politeness encoded into our language, but it takes a different form.  Basic Japanese politeness appears very direct to English speakers.  I was in a sushi place yesterday, and I was contemplating about how I would ask for some water in each language.  In Japanese, I could simply say “水ください” and that (“Water, please”) would be seen as polite.  But in English, that could actually be a little abrupt.  In English, we would have to add something to it “I would like some water, please”, or “Could you please give me some water”.  And I came to realize that in English, politeness is all about giving someone the feeling – whether it actually is the case or not – that you are giving them a choice in the matter.  In Japanese, that is not so important.  In Japanese, it seems to be more important that you show that you recognize that you are asking someone to sacrifice something, such as time or effort.

So this simple observation goes back to what is probably one of the foundational differences between English and Japanese cultures – the difference between the individualistic culture of the west, and the collectivist culture of the east.  In Japan, it is not your choice that is shown respect, but, instead, your status as a part of society.

This also is shown in the simple greeting “Nice to meet you”.  In English, that simply does mean “nice to meet you” – but in Japanese it’s よろしくお願いします, which does not really mean that, but “please take care of me in the future” or some such.  In the Japanese, the cultural assumption is “I may need something from you and I request politely that you take care of me.”

Again, these language differences are completely transparent to those who are saying them.

I have noticed that those who translate from Japanese to English also tend to try to translate the cultural assumptions as best as they can, and in my view, this loses a lot.  For example, in the song “What is Love” by Morning Musume, there is this phrase:

勝利の女神はどなたに
微笑むでしょうか
勝利の女神は誰にも
平等でしょうか

One site translates it as:

Who will the goddess of victory
smile for?
Is the goddess of victory
fair to everyone?

And another as:

Who will win happiness
In the end?
Does happiness come
Equally to us all?

So which is correct?

The first is probably more correct.  Note the character for “kami” in the actual Japanese – but those in the west would see that as a little strange, so the second translator decided to also attempt a cultural translation, but lost something in the process.  Specifically, it lost a certain spiritual connotation that perhaps the second translator didn’t think that the western reader would understand or appreciate.

But how can we understand their culture if it’s hidden from us in the guise of our own?

No, I don’t think there’s a goddess of victory.  But perhaps some Japanese do.  This speaks to the superstitions or beliefs in Japanese culture that we don’t share – and it also speaks to superstitions or beliefs in ours that they don’t share.  It speaks, I think, to biases of the translator, to a degree.  It speaks to two stark choices in deciding how to bridge cultures:  do you just directly translate the language or do you also try to translate the culture?  And it speaks to the most important question of all:  how do we speak to each other with respect when we don’t even understand how our own language constrains our thinking?

And actually, it speaks to even something more fundamental:  勝利 does not mean happiness.  It means victory.  Why did the second translator think that those two words were interchangeable in this context?  Or is there an assumption in the Japanese culture that victory translates to happiness?

The constraints of my language are not clear to me.  The fact that they exist is becoming far more clear to me.  I wonder if Japanese people have the same experience when learning English.

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Language

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