How a Knowledge of Historical Linguistics and Semiotics Can Aid Translation Services

by brenton

The various sub-fields of linguistics can teach a translator a great deal.  Since these fields have developed over time, there is a vast amount of knowledge contained in them, from language comparisons to the study of cultural signs.  Here are two linguistic sub-fields and the way in which they can help translators:

  1. Historical Linguistics: This was one of the first fields of linguistics to emerge and was dominant for a long time until it was replaced by synchronic linguistics or the study of language in the moment.  Even though historical linguistics may not be the dominant linguistic approach in the present, it still contains a lot of information that can help translators.

Historical linguists studied language families and demonstrated how several languages were descended from the same root, knowledge which is invaluable to a translator.  Knowing that two languages had the same root keeps the translator on the lookout for similarities in meaning and grammar.  However, it’s also possible that two languages which seem similar on the surface may have different roots, and knowing this will warn the translator not to take the meanings of words for granted even if they sound similar.

  1. Semiotics: Semiotics is a fascinating field popularized by thinkers such as Saussure, Derrida and Foucault.  It is basically the study of meaning—not just the meanings of words but also the meanings of other cultural signs and symbols.

It is interesting how words with certain meanings can come to mean something totally different over time because of cultural influences.  Take, for example, the word “novel” which initially only referred to something new.  However, given that novels, as we now know them i.e., long pieces of fiction, were a novel idea when they were first introduced, they were referred to over and over as “novel” until the adjective became a noun.  Now, the plots of the novels you find on the market may strike you as pretty tired and old, but they’re still called “novels”!

Translators can benefit from staying on the pulse of languages and noting how changes in meaning take place over time.  This helps in producing an accurate translation where the meanings of words have been precisely conveyed.

Knowing the historical basis of a language and studying the changing meanings of words are both invaluable talents in a translator and can aid greatly in producing accurate translations.  The fluidity of meaning in human discourse can be both, its strongest and its weakest point.  It leads to great variety and diversity between and even within cultures.  But it can also trip you up if you’re not careful.  Contact us for translation services that keep in mind the similarities and differences between languages and the meanings of words.

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