Language to the Fore!

By Stafford Hemmer with Barbara Guggemos

The NCTA General Meeting took place on May 12th at San Francisco’s LGBT Center. The event featured a few familiar elements, from new member orientation to our traditional networking and schmoozing, as well as an extraordinary guest speaker, renowned linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.

As at each General Meeting, the main event was preceded by new member orientation, this time coordinated by Board Director Naomi Baer. Then, NCTA President Tuomas Kostiainen officially called the meeting to order at 1:45 with opening announcements about the association’s upcoming workshops and events, and particular focus on the year’s major event: The 48th Annual ATA Conference in San Francisco.

NCTA Wants You!

Tuomas and Vice President Yves Avérous outlined the results of a February brainstorming session hosted by NCTA Member Christine Lemor-Drake, involving 18 member volunteers. Because NCTA will be the host chapter of this year’s conference, both officers encouraged all NCTA members to consider volunteering, to help the association implement its many ideas and fulfill its host responsibilities once the conference starts on October 31st.

Yves also announced the launch of NCTA’s very own wiki site, which will be a nexus of information for all ATA conference participants. The site was warmly received by meeting attendees, and both officers encouraged members to submit contributions and ideas to the site. In addition, as the host chapter, NCTA will have its own information table staffed at all times during the conference. So, both officers encouraged attendees —and all NCTA members—to contact any board member if interested in participating in the ATA conference on behalf of NCTA in some capacity, and especially to help staff the NCTA table. Working the table is also a great way to connect with old friends, meet new colleagues and network with potential clients—while helping the chapter at the same time.

Nunberg on language

NCTA member Francisco Hulse kindly delivered an introduction to his very own Spanish pupil and celebrated linguist, Geoffrey Nunberg, as our featured guest speaker. An adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley, linguist, researcher and consulting professor at Stanford University, regular contributor to National Public Radio (including Fresh Air with Terry Gross), Geoffrey Nunberg addressed our general meeting with refreshing insights into the intersection of language and politics, with wit and impeccable expertise.

Nunberg intended to “talk as a linguist about ‘language attitudes,’ and what linguists do that bear on this.” He asked attendees to contemplate a recent report from the BBC on the world’s most difficult word to translate, the Tshiluba word ilunga, which means “a person who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time.” The word gave Nunberg a perfect foil for the linguistic equation that he explored in the rest of his presentation: does language “x” have no word for the concept “y”? How do interpreters and translators convey, or fail to convey, the proper meaning in the absence of an available foreign language correlate?

Language and nation

For instance, it may be a “false, misleading or irrelevant” endeavor to explore the notion that German has no corresponding word for “humor,” or that Arabic needs a “companion,” or that Russian is bound by a lack of “freedom.” Yet historically, this tendency fostered a “romantic nationalism” and a sense of identity intrinsically tied to the “geist” of the language, time, geography and its people.  As the English language spread to other parts of the British Empire, people wanted to find a unifying theme, which yielded, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary.

A similar situation arose in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s: With waves of immigration, laws were passed to restrict use of the immigrants’ languages. Nebraska restricted foreign language study until 9th grade, for example. Iowa voters had to read the constitution in order to cast a ballot. A most recent wave of language restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by claims that English was the guardian of democratic ideals. These claims, which were also made in literature, were based on the idea that, as Nunberg put it, “only if you have the words can you have the concepts, and hence the embodiment of national ideals and identity.” If a language doesn’t have a word for a concept, then the concept cannot be understood.

This idea can be traced to the Yale linguist Benjamin Whorf, who argued that humans organize nature in their minds by assigning terms. According to Whorf, language lays down a grid, and its speakers cannot think outside of that grid. But Nunberg disputes this notion, saying it cannot be proved experimentally. Moreover, the opposite can be proved: As evidence that people are capable of thinking outside the categories of their language, Nunberg notes that English does not have a one-word translation for German Schadenfreude, but English speakers nevertheless unquestionably understand the concept of malicious joy at someone else’s misfortune.

Word association

Differences in the ways languages categorize nature can pose problems for translators. In English, a single verb can describe both a manner of motion and a change in location. Sentences such as, “She danced down the stairs” are hard to translate into Romance languages, because Romance languages categorize motion differently. Two verbs are needed in Spanish to convey the exact meaning of the English sentence. Often, one verb is left out in the translation.

Word associations also present problems for translators: For example, when the English term “empowerment” is translated into German, a dictionary search might turn up the German word Ermächtigung. From the dictionary definition, Ermächtigung would appear to be a very close translation, but actually it is not because the two words have vastly different associations. “Empowerment,” a term from the US civil rights movement, has such positive associations for Americans that it has been appropriated by right wing conservatives in the USA. Ermächtigung, on the hand, has very negative connotations for Germans, who associate it with the events of 1933 that brought Hitler to power.

Another example is “ownership society.” Half the time, translations keep this term in English. When “ownership” is translated with a term meaning something like “stakeholder,” the English meaning is not conveyed because of different associations.

Theme words

There are certain theme words in every political society. In the U.S., every political issue is framed in terms of “freedom.” Roosevelt’s “economic freedom” meant freedom to do something, but in the editorial pages of newspapers on both right and left, “freedom” means freedom from government interference. Other societies have different theme words with symbolic significance that cannot be easily rendered in another language. “Freedom” in a sense is untranslatable.


Dr. Nunberg wrapped up his presentation with a question and answer period with the audience. Here are just a few highlights:

• The fact that English “just” and French “juste” are descended from the same Latin word us irrelevant to their current usage. Each language has had plenty of time to evolve separate meanings for both words.

• According to Chomsky, recursion is the characteristic feature of human language. When speakers of different languages marry and speak a pigeon language, within one generation relative clauses develop: This is the paper. Jack read the paper–> This is the paper that Jack read. The pigeon language has turned into a creole.

• Comments on “homeland” vs. “nation” and “country”: Traditionally, English has not had any word for “nation” or “country” that has the same connotations as “la patrie” or “das Vaterland.” “Homeland” as in “homeland security” borrows from the European concept of Vaterland. It suggests that nationality is a matter of blood relationships.

• Recommended authors/books for translators:
1) Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (refutes Whorf’s theories)
2) Daniel Slobin

• Machine translation is enormously better than it was 20 years ago, but nobody notices because it still only gets 20% right. Proponents currently estimate that it will be 25 years before it machine translation becomes practical. Twenty years ago, the estimate was 25 years as well, so not much has changed.

After a short, but informative Q&A session with the audience that closed Dr. Nunberg’s presentation, the general meeting ended with a brief round of networking and schmoozing.