Saturday, February 5, 2011 Translation questions.

One fundamental concern in a great deal of cross and intercultural research is the issue of translation, and this problem is exacerbated when dealing with issues of emotion which have a tendency to be more subjective (Pavlenko, 2005; Wierzbicka, 1999). Consequently, that issues of translation arose in determining the accuracy of the cross-cultural interpretations is unsurprising. At the most basic level is that cluster of words and phrases that “just don’t translate” to the target language. In addition, participants used a number of notions that have multiple correlates in the other language, and ultimately, the words do matter. Chulchulmaeda, danghok, heodoongdaeda, danghwang (confusion), noonchi, kangok, hogam (good feeling), brazenfacedness (need Korean word), chung (affection), are examples of emotion concepts appearing in this study from the Koreans participants for which the bi-cultural translator, a Korean native who has lived in the United States for more than 15 years while completing a Masters and PhD in counseling psychology and later as a practicing therapist, had difficulty finding satisfactory direct translations.

My intention here is not to suggest a strong version of linguistic relativism to imply that the Western participants cannot perceive or understand the notion presented by the Koreans and codified in the Korean language, rather something more akin to what Kay and Kempton (1984) call “limited linguistic relativity and determinism” (p. 78). Indeed, that the Koreans have a single word or “catch phrase” to represent an emotional state, while the North Americans did not, does not imply at all that the non-native participants did not describe something close to the emotional state the Koreans did. For example, the Koreans considered their concept of noonchi to be both clearly represented in the first video clip and something uniquely Korean. Participant S explained, “I thought what the principal did was very Korean. He showed Korean work place culture where noonchi happens a lot where there is a manager.” Yet at least one North American participants recognized something comparable to noonchi. Participant H says of Teacher Kim, “he’s kind of trying to minimize the damage” and later, “like he was analyzing the situation.”

However, such analogues were not always seen in this study. Indeed, of the XX instances in which the Koreans used nine terms that “just don’t translate” well, only XX showed clear attempts to express something akin to the Korean term by the non-native participants. Thus, this study provides some support for the weak version of the linguistic relativity that when a culture/language does have a succinct word or phrase for a particular emotion, it does raise the presence of that notion. Simply put, having a word for something makes it easier to talk about that thing, which in turn increases the likelihood that people will talk about the notion, and ultimately to raise the level of that notion in the consciousness of the society.

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