Hermeneutics, Semantics, and Literature in Translation

Sara Barac - Ecuador


December 16, 2016

Exploring language and literature, I have inevitably been faced with the question: why is language important? Simple sets of sound are assigned meanings and significance by means of cognitive recognition, shaped by the environment they are developed in. Certain words are specific to the society of their language, indicative of social and environmental beliefs and distinct ways of viewing the world. Literature, in and of itself, connects us to the greater truths and concepts in our lives, as well as gives us an insight into and understanding of other perspectives–it allows us to live lives different from our own and develop empathy. Literature in translation is difficult and complex, touched by too many hands and suffering the loss of too much original meaning, which skews the hermeneutics, intentions and interpretations, of the works in question. Language is a constitutive part of culture, the way that we express ourselves, and connect to our realities.
Language is the most common mode of human communication and social interaction, and this interaction in turn develops society through the reproduction and maintenance of it in beliefs and attitudes. Its significance, however, is derived from semantics, the meanings and sentiments assigned to words. This discussion of senses conveyed through language eventually spreads to larger bodies of text as well, which embody not only the socio-formative aspects of language but also take into account historical and cultural contexts. That is, to say, that language is rooted in the multi-faceted context it comes from and is used in, which further develops the works of literature employed to discuss social issues and challenge truths.
First, I start with the typical Spanish example of semantics: querer or amar, both meaning “to love.” While amar refers to much stronger love, querer refers to more platonic relationships or romantic ones with less depth. Through an etic perspective, outside the social group, the fact that querer also means “to want” indicates a love more fleeting than that involved in amar. Yet, the connotations aside, just having two unique distinctions of love shapes its perception and concept, adding layers of complexity to a sentiment that is nebulous without specification. To me, this indicates a level of distinction and higher thought applied to concepts that clearly, those involved in the original creation of the language thought important enough to make, effectively giving it significance.
But languages are not just created, they are evolved. Interesting to note, amar retains the same connotation as derived from Latin, yet the Latin father of querer literally signifies “to search.” From here, we can further grasp the complexity of sentiments that are attached to words, and come to terms with the fact that unless one is raised in a culture with the language, they will never understand the true meanings and social perspectives that are specific to that socio-lingual group.
As a linguist and lover of literature, I despaired at this realization. If I could not read Márquez without grasping fully the connotations of his art, what was the point of trying to read it in Spanish at all? It reminded me of the struggle of reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno–to elect an artistic translation that attempts to preserve the mastery but becomes the translator’s work rather than the author’s, or a literal translation that best preserves the original meaning but at the expense of the technique employed by the original author.
Some words are untranslatable but indicative of standard social behavior. The word sobremesa refers to the conversation that happens at the table after everyone is finished eating, showing the importance of storytelling and spending time with each other. When I encountered the word duende in literature, I was confounded as I knew the literal meaning to be “elf,” but in a literary context it becomes the description of an awe that is unreal, almost magical. Not knowing the senses of these words left me feeling as though I could not appreciate the text fully, but now I wonder if it means I can appreciate it more.
Despite ingrained comprehension being unattainable, putting the conscious effort into learning a new language is still rewarding. It builds empathy, changes perspectives, and aids in developing communication skills. Furthermore, we are able to think critically about our own language. In the struggle to translate the poetry of Croatian poet Tin Ujević, I learned the historical context of a word that to me signified profound sadness and weariness, while longing for something you cannot regain. Suddenly, sentiments and senses become tangible which means they can be more easily questioned and challenged which then leads to intentional progress. But it doesn’t stop there. Language constructs literature, which itself addresses and challenges large truths and societal norms we encounter in our lives, and brings to light struggles we might not otherwise experience by forcing us to sympathize with characters who lead lives previously unimaginable to us.
Human nature is nested in language and in literature, and the only way to understand ourselves is to challenge our beliefs and truths. Through this, we become empathetic and intentional global citizens, ultimately part of something greater than ourselves.

Sara Barac