The Unsung Legacy: Born and Perpetuated in Death

By Charlotte Ip

“What legacy will I leave behind?”


A question we ceaselessly ask ourselves, because we covet immortality, hoping that even if our body ceases to live, our spirit will. We hope to distinguish ourselves amongst the gradually homogenized human race, threatened by the shadow of globalization. We hope to impart our wisdom into memories of our successors. Yet most times we feel lost in the crowd, ignorant that we ourselves are bearers of an ancient wisdom that inherently defines us – language.


The World Through our Looking Glass


Indeed, language is not only a communication tool, but a vision, built collectively by experiences of one’s civilization. As British linguist Frank Palmer says, “The words of a language often reflect not so much the reality of the world, but the interests of the people who speak it.” In other words, our native linguistic system crafts our reality, meaning it imparts us a world vision. Thus, when different language communities interact, there arises inevitably a gap of communication which even translation experts fail to bridge. This phenomenon is called “untranslatability”, meaning no equivalent of the other language is found. While some take a more obvious shape, some are so fundamental that the language speaker acknowledges it as a universal truth. Therefore, to achieve mutual understanding through translation, the vision of one language community metaphorically dies to achieve the other.



Has it crossed your mind that humans have been attempting to use language to shape abstract concepts like time? How we visualize time is in fact how our language system taught us to visualize time. In 2001, American cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky conducted a priming test on various Mandarin and English speakers to determine their way of conceptualizing time. It was revealed that Mandarin speakers conceptualize time vertically while English horizontally, meaning Mandarin speakers are more receptive to the statement “March comes earlier than April” while the English “March comes before April.” The vast difference in time perception might be traced back to the ancient Chinese practice of writing vertically while the English horizontally, reflecting how our experience shape reality. Therefore, in an attempt to convey time in these two languages, one vision dies as the only choice to fit in the other.


Metamorphosis: Farewell Larva, Hello Butterfly


Just as a larva, when morphed into a butterfly, kills its past life, a word, when morphed into the closest equivalent of another language, kills its vision. Many times, form comes into play when it directly conveys meaning to express a literary function like puns or humor. As the form changes, the fight of retaining either the literal meaning or literary device continues and the former usually dies to keep the latter alive.


While translating the pun in Mao Dun’s “Vacillation” to English, which the character mistook ““委員” (weiyuan) and “桂圓” (guiyuan) to insert humor, Mr. Qian Gechuan displayed ultimate creativity by morphing them into “committee” and “common tea”. The literal meaning of “桂圓 (longan)” dies, to carry the humor across readers’ heart.




The Sense Lost in Translation


One of the more obvious deaths through translation’s knife is the lack of cultural concepts in the language concerned. While some can be resolved by coining a new equivalent, like the addition of Western ideologies like “rights”(權利) , “democracy” (民主), “privacy”(私隱) into the Chinese dictionary, some trace back to the deep-seated connotations a language community shares towards certain words. In other words, the imagery evoked from words again forms the reality for language groups. For example, the famous Chinese poem “Golden Thread (金鏤衣)” is brutally pierced through to reveal the underlying meaning “Riches” in English. This is because the concept of “affluence” Golden Thread symbolizes was not shared in English, and with no similar equivalents, the metaphor dies to bring forth the meaning.


Some cultural concepts found their bridge, but it is one not sturdy enough to hold it all. Contrary to popular opinion, David Hawkes translated one of the Four Great Classical Novels in China, “Dream of the Red Chamber” (紅樓夢) into “Dream of the Golden Days”. This is because the connotations of red in Chinese - spring, youth, fortune, prosperity - is retained only partially in English, with rosy cheeks symbolizing youth. “Red” thus, is slain as “gold” is born, which embodies youth, fortune and prosperity. Yet, no color could fully embody the life of red, even in her “golden days” she was half-dead.


Death for Diversity - But Why?


According to the Global Language Monitor in 2016, a whopping 5400 words are being incorporated into our language log every day. While some vocabulary are harmlessly coined in one’s language to address the need of expressing a universal concept, like “privacy”, formerly absent in Chinese, or as a cultural introduction like “qi” to the English community, there are always occasions where one language must sacrifice, whether the literal meaning, literary device, or their reality to actualize the others’ visions. In a world where Western science is advocated, we are seeking for the one and only reality. We return to the perennial question whether languages should be standardized and thus our realities: where “gold” entails everything “red”, and our associations to various colors will be identical; where time will always move horizontally, and everyone can collectively laugh about “committee” and “common tea”. However, by what grounds do we judge which reality is more accurate? Language is, after all, a vision, dictating how we structure our thoughts and present it to others. Therefore, subjectivity inevitably plays a role.


Languages are just like trees. They differ not in the skeleton like the naming of objects, but the wood, scent, flowers, fruits, nuts, creatures that takes shelter –the nuanced descriptions and perceptions of these objects. These are what radiate the beauty and uniqueness of the species. Decapitating the tree, would after all, be decapitating a form of beauty, worse, an identity, honored by the very group who speaks it. And just as trees eventually wither if tended the same way, the soul of languages die because it would become too stilted and foreign to be mastered by natives.


Yes, languages do change, new barks grow while old barks detached. It is inevitable that certain expressions are replaced or forgotten with the introduction of new coinages. Yet, these will always be near and dear to natives, who participated in their very creation, thus evoking resonance that reaffirms their identity.



The World Through Our Lens


So, how can we achieve mutual understanding in texts which manipulates the unique beauty of languages? We have, in fact, always apprehended, through our own language lenses, because as different as our expressions may be, we manipulate them to describe similar objects. Therefore, they, when translated, are never completely dead. What dies, may be its vision, the expression itself, but its soul, the underlying meaning, the expressive means lives on.


Our Legacy


What legacy will I leave behind?” You ask. Indeed, one does not always have to perform life-changing deeds, or pursue absolute uniqueness to be remembered. As simple as feeling the gravity of every vibration in your vocal cords while articulating your mother tongue(s), you are contributing to breathing full life into what defines you – your reality, vision, culture. In so, however, we risk sacrificing the like of other languages, which despite not hampering comprehension, perpetuates a gap that is entrenched in our thought system.


Yet, we all know, it is all but a necessary death.




Illustration credits:

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