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December 11, 2015

How Studying Plato’s Views on Language Can Aid Translation Services

by brenton

Languages are so ancient that studying even the oldest texts can help in modern day translation services.  The Ancient Greeks, who are known for their contribution to Western civilization first came up with an alphabet by adapting the one used by the Phoenicians, another ancient Semitic civilization.  As a result, the works of Homer were written down and this led to a lot of discussion and dialogue—what we would today call literary criticism.

Plato’s Views on Language

In the dialogue Cratylus, Plato considers whether language is a human creation, a result of social convention or supernatural in origin.  He argues that language is developed through a natural process and is not dependent on human beings for its growth.  Towards the end, he admits that society might play a small role in language formation but, by and large, he considers language to be independent of societal constructs.

Language as  a Natural Process

A translator can benefit a great deal from reading the works of Plato because it’s interesting to consider what the origins of language really were.  If language is the development of a natural process, then a translator could benefit by learning about other natural processes like evolution.  One often refers to the “evolution” of a language without realizing that this concept might have first been developed by Plato.

A translator is likely to find many examples of the evolution of a language because, even within the same society and culture, words often change in meaning as time goes on.  Something which might have had a positive connotation at one point may come to mean something negative later on or vice versa.  For example, take the word “demon.”  When the Greeks referred to demons or “daimons,” these were generally positive entities which were half god and half human.  Now, of course, demons are considered negative beings that possess people.  Knowing that a word has changed meanings can help a translator pick the right meaning, depending on what time period his/her text originates from.

Language as a Societal Construct

On the other hand, if language is influenced by society, then the study of societal mores and customs can help in translation.  We often find that the same word takes on slightly different meanings depending on the culture that uses it.  For example, the French phrase “carte blanche” generally indicates permission or ability to do whatever one wants.  However, in the Regency period in England, it was generally used to indicate a woman who had been taken on as a mistress by a man in high standing.  The woman was given “carte blanche” which meant that she could buy whatever she wanted with the man’s money.  In a period where mistresses were the norm, the term “carte blanche” took on this other meaning.

Contact us for translations that take into account the effects of nature and nurture on the development of language.

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