Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Against Last Words

In the most recent New York Times magazine, Walter Benn Michaels published an article entitled “Last Words.” In it, he writes that it doesn’t matter if languages die out. One language is as good as another, he thinks, so people can simply switch over to another language. As a translator and someone interested in languages, however, I have to disagree.

As we well know, there exist no two languages with an exact one-to-one equivalence. If there did, translators wouldn’t be needed. People could simply look up each word in a bilingual dictionary and translate it directly. That’s how easy it would be to communicate with people from other languages and cultures. And if all languages had the same view of the world and of life – and this would likely have to be the case if we all had the same ideas and concepts but just used different terms for them – there probably would be one world culture.

But that is not the case. Each language that exists offers a unique way of experiencing life; each culture expresses its outlook and its beliefs through the way it creates and uses its tongue. At some point, most translators have surely come across an “untranslatable” word or concept, which means something so culture-specific that it is hard to find a translation for it. The Swedish word “lagom” is often given as an example. One could argue that “lagom,” which means something like “not too much, not too little, but just right,” reveals something about the Swedish character, and explains, among other things, why Sweden has prided itself on being a neutral country. If Swedish no longer existed, according to Michaels’ view, Swedes and their descendants could just find a new language to use, and that would be just as good a way for them to express themselves. While it is true that Swedish is no better and no worse than any other language, think what would be lost if Swedish was not used any more. Without the word “lagom,” and all other Swedish words, the uniquely Swedish way of seeing the world would disappear.

Obviously, this loss would not just affect Swedes (or the speakers of whichever tongue was no longer used). The diversity of languages that exists in our world is beneficial for us all, because we can learn from other peoples and they way they live and experience the world. Rather than not caring when a language dies, we should work to learn and preserve languages. Let’s not allow any more languages to speak their “last words.”

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