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Translating from Major Language to Minor Language

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Translation from a major language into a minor one is very different from translating in the opposite direction.


It has been suggested that minority languages are not even acknowledged in many parts of the world, and where acknowledgement does exist they are defined as uncultured, primitive,simple dialects because they have been suppressed by the more dominant,official languages. Lotman and Uspensky believe the structure of language must be at the centre of every culture for it to survive, describing languages the heart within the body of culture and putting into perspective the distinctions between a language accepted as minor, and that which is a flourishing major language (Lotman and Uspensky 1978, Pages 211 – 32). Research into minor languages, however, reveals a taxonomic sophistication that adequately expressed its speakers’ cognitive requirements synchronically, but has not evolved adequately to incorporate the plethora of technological terminology that dominant languages encompass with relative ease, resulting in many loan words taken from the influence of adjacent major languages. Many minor languages die out as their speakers age, but some undergo a revival as enthusiasts propound the benefits of their continued value.

The fundamental difficulty within many of the minority languages today, however, continues to be one often minology, described asa semiotic science of cognitive and communicative organisation of knowledge (Myking, 1997) and considered to be the central discipline or the common denominator for all the aspects of a translator’s work (Holljen, Translation Journal, 1999, January). Most minority languages are often not particularly suited to adequate translation in terms of modern concepts and technologies and are more inclined towards maintaining the socio-linguistic aspects associated with those languages, as recognised by Holljen:

The scientific aspect of any languages dependent on the vocabulary of that language. The possibility must be retained for people to be able to express themselves in any given field in their mother tongue, no matter on which level of abstraction ( Holljen, Translation Journal, 1999,January).

Some of these minority language groups, such as the Nordic languages, are now utilising language planning techniques to standardise their natural languages rather than indiscriminately incorporating loan words from technically advanced languages such as English. As a result, NORDTERM has spearheaded the campaign for a standardisation procedure across Finland, Norway and Sweden, designated the ‘Nordic Terminological Record Format‘ (Holljen, Translation Journal, 1999,January), supported by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to ‘ protect and support historical, regional

and minority languages in Europe ‘ (Part I, Article 1, Council of Europe,


We cannot yet specify satisfactorily just what we mean by a ‘perfect’ language

(Aitchison,1991, pp. 214)

Toury noted that Translation is a kind of activity which inevitably involves at least two languages and two cultural traditions (Toury 1978:200). Nida concurred, adding that, if the cultural and linguistic disparity was particularly great the socio-linguistic facet would be more of a problem (Nida, 1964, Page 130). The potential difficulties in translating major languages into minor languages can be illustrated through the concept of the ‘space of possibilities’ upon which utterances based on context provide a background for semantic representations of inferred language that might be spoken or, equally, left unspoken and from which linguistic form triggers interpretation rather than conveying information (Winograd and Flores 1986, p.57), contributing to external influences which, with memorised sequences and pre-cognitive learning (Gutt,1991, p.26), can all be attributed to a meaning’s intertextuality, or all pervasive textual phenomenon (Hatim, 1997a, Page 29).

Newmark identifies cultural,technical or linguistic disparity that might require a translator to add extra information to maintain intelligibility (Newmark, 1988, Page 91) whilst Hatim considers inter textual information provides the various textual clues(Hatim, 1997b, Page 200). A translator initially needs to identify inter textual markers and then evaluate the implications for understanding by the target audience when translated, particularly difficult in cases of extreme cultural diversity, or ‘implicates’ in Baker’s terminology (1992, Pages 71 – 77).Baker suggests translators may attempt literal translation, cultural substitution, elaboration and explication, translation by omission or transliteration through retaining the source language within parts of the text.

Hatim and Mason’s model of context takes into account the context of culture with its aspects of ideology and sets of values (Caldas-Coulthard, 2000a, Page 2), reinforced by Hoey’s connective pattern which highlights the more predominant points due to paradigmatic and syntagmatic properties of lexical priming (Hoey, 1991: 82), established in the West Greenlandic language, or kalaallit oqaasii (or kalaallisut) (Petersen,in Collis, 1990: 294), through the highly developed inflectional use of nominal and verbal paradigms (Fortescue, in Collis, 1990: 309) and which, with its spelling and pronunciation alterations being contingent upon grammatical and lexical requirements, provides an excellent illustration. West Greenlandic is a deeply inflected, polysynthetic language, heavily influenced and dependent upon the concepts of theme and rhyme, and reliant on the positions of Subject and Object to develop an adequate semantic and pragmatic morphology (Fortescue,in Collis, 1990: 309).

The ‘resource [for] making meaning‘ (Gerot and Wignell, 1995: 6) is notably, in West Greenlandic,realised through a very long string of words built up from bases and associated affixes whose meanings describe, very adequately, the sparse surrounding landscapes in very accurate and specific terms, less appropriate, however, for evolving technology. These inter textual messages are a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of texts (Hatim and Mason, 1997, Page 219) without which only partial understanding could possibly be achieved. Inter textual reference provides a semiotic approach which can link previous text to define tenuous meanings although precedence should be intentionality over informational content (Hatim and Mason, 1990, Page 136) maintaining semiotic status and lexical devices in terms of cohesion and coherence to ensure that translation continues to make sense, retains its original tone/voice and engages the intended response from the target reader.

Sapir recognised the disparity between individuals’ cognitive environments, commenting that No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality (Sapir, 1956, Page 69). This recognition that translation is not just a transfer of information between languages, but a transfer from one culture to another (Hervey et al, 1995, Page 20)controversially requires translators to acquire adequate understanding and empathy of a particular culture to enable the necessary inter textual cues to be recognised and available for transfer into language use. Modern German has sixteen forms for ‘reiten’, whereas Old English had thirteen forms of ‘ridan'[both meaning ‘to ride] (Coates, 2004). Over time these inflections became lost which added to the flexibility of language used, e.g. nominalisation;additions of pre- or -suffixes, and word-blending, e.g. the Norse word ‘rein’ meaning ‘deer’ added to the Old English word ‘deer’ meaning ‘animal’ giving a literal meaning ‘deer-animal’. Evidence of this concept is still apparent in the innumerable lexemes associated with the concept of snow in West Greenlandic

The vastly controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also recognises these constraints that can be placed on communications within the concepts of cognitive experiences, according to principles of linguistic determinism and linguistic relativity, with subscription to language being utilised in order to discern differences between agents. Lexicaland grammatical devices add to the flexibility of language used, e.g. nominalisation, with additions such as suffixes or post-bases, inflectional endings and portmanteau verbs contributing to the rich diversity of this language’s morph-syntactic adaptability. Strong determinism associated with the Arctic traditions evolved from man’s close proximity to nature which, in turn, shaped their concept of language realised through cognitive thought (Maclean,in Collis, 1990: 164). The difficulty in translation, however, occurs through the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which acknowledges everyday word usage taking a rather flexible position in a typical Kalaallit sentence, with markers to identify their relation to other lexemes (Maclean, in Collis, 1990: 164).These Kalaallit characteristics can be explained through the theory of reference in relation to the semantic relation between an element in the text and some other element that is crucial to the interpretation of it(Halliday and Hasan, 1976: 8), with ‘lexical priming‘ (Crystal, 2003:162) providing the cohesion that displays an expectancy relations between words (Eggins, 1994: 101) in accordance with Nunan’s model whereby randomsentences are distinguished[through] the existence of certain text-forming, cohesive devices (Nunan, 1993: 59).

West Greenlandic relies on the static nature of word-internal morphemes. If their order was changed, the utterance would lose its full impetus and implications. The implications of local and global meanings are revealed through code-switching, i.e. switching the positions of over 400 post-bases and 300 inflectional endings to achieve con notational and denotational meanings, the ‘signals for retrieval‘(Caldas-Coulthard, 2000: 5) which can be demonstrated through reference in the form of an exophoric or endophoric context within an utterance where cohesion lies in the continuity of reference (Halliday and Hasan, 1976: 31). The syntax of this language reveals a major problem when translating languages such as Kalallit into major languages. Fortes cue suggests that A particularly characteristic trait of the language is the re cursiveness of its morphologyitsword-order is fairly free; it is a ‘non-configurational language (citedin Collis, 1990: 311) resulting in a ‘global freedom’ which can, conversely create a strong cohesive bond between lexical items[that]cohere with a preceding occurrence even with different referents (Haliday andHasan, 1976: 283), a feature Hoey describes as the ‘study of patterns of lexis in text (Hoey, 1991: 10). Stoddard explained the coherence factor exhibited through cohesive devices whichmight be expected to occur most frequently might also be expected to exhibit the most fruitful network patterns…[and the] types of cohesion which are global in nature might be expected to exhibit the most common patterns (Stoddard, 1991: 32), especially pertinent to the syntax of Kalaallit.

A particularly interesting concept in translation that reveals the ethos between translating from any minor languageinto a major language and vice versa is the translation of poetry, recognised by Bassnett (1991, Page 101) who describes a gulf between cultures through distance in time and space. Thai poetry, for example, reveals the representation of ‘jai‘, or ‘mind’ of the writer, lacking appropriate morphemes to provide a suitable translation, explained as just pretty words, nice sounds to show you that the words are feeling words (Conlon,2005). The translator needs to decide whether to maintain the ethos of the target language, or to aim for literary significance, described by Bassnett as modernisation as opposed to archaisation (Bassnett, 1991), or to follow Luke’s principle of maintaining comprehensibility by providing a chain of signifier in the target language (Luke and Vaget, 1988: 121).


This essay focused on the difficulties associated with translation from a major language into a minor one which is a very different concept from translating in the opposite direction for various reasons, not least the differences between cultures[which] may cause more severe complications for the translator than do differences in language structure (Nida, 1964:130). The socio-linguistic aspects of translation are more profound when a major language is being translated into aminor one, evidence of which can be observed through the cognitive-conceptual significance of Kalaallit which, together with its specific connotation and denotation, is directly associated with their dependence upon survival in an inhospitable terrain. This factor has contributed to the highly specialised differentiation of its morphological characteristic, utilising a switch-reference system in preference to the development of a more syntactic-based language (Petersen, in Collis, 1990: 294), a feature that is often present in minor languages through the dependence of their speakers on ever-changing features of the landscape for survival, requiring an awareness of language planning according to Holljen (1999, January, Translation Journal).

Whilst there are various difficulties associated with translating from a minor language to a major one, these are mainly represented through expressing elusive cognitive meanings into these mantics of more prosaic terminology. However, major languages are representative of fairly well documented cultures whose ways of life, whilst not necessarily familiar, do not represent totally unknown and incomprehensible traditions and, coupled with well-established linguistic understanding, makes the task of translating an abstract concept from a minor language less arduous than attempting to establish sufficient empathy to adapt technological terminology from a major language into a more fundamental vocabulary.


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