If language were simply a nomenclature for a set of universal concepts, it would be easy to translate from one language to another. One would simply replace the French name for a concept with the English name. If language were like this the task of learning a new language would also be much easier than it is. But anyone who has attempted either of these tasks has acquired, alas, a vast amount of direct proof that languages are not nomenclatures, that the concepts . . . of one language may differ radically from those of another. . . . Each language articulates or organizes the world differently. Languages do not simply name existing categories, they articulate their own.
(Culler, 1976: 21–2)
This chapter discusses translation problems arising from lack of equivalence at word level; what does a translator do when there is no word in the target language which expresses the same meaning as the source language word? But before we look at specific types of non-equivalence and the various strategies which can be used for dealing with them, it is important to establish what a word is, whether or not it is the main unit of meaning in language, what kinds of meaning it can convey, and how languages differ in the way they choose to express certain meanings but not others.
2.1 THE WORD IN DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
2.1.1 What is a word?
As translators, we are primarily concerned with communicating the overall meaning of a stretch of language. To achieve this, we need to start by decoding the units and structures which carry that meaning. The smallest unit which Equivalence at word level 11
we would expect to possess individual meaning is the word. Defined loosely, the word is ‘the smallest unit of language that can be used by itself’ (Bolinger and Sears, 1968: 43).1 For our present purposes, we can define the written word with more precision as any sequence of letters with an orthographic space on either side.
Many of us think of the word as the basic meaningful element in a language. This is not strictly accurate. Meaning can be carried by units smaller than the word (see 2.1.3 below). More often, however, it is carried by units much more complex than the single word and by various structures and linguistic devices. This will be discussed in more detail in the following chapters. For the moment, we will content ourselves with single words as a starting point before we move on to more complex linguistic units. 2.1.2 Is there a one-to-one relationship between word and meaning? If you consider a word such as rebuild, you will note that there are two distinct elements of meaning in it: re and build, i.e. ‘to build again’. The same applies to disbelieve which may be paraphrased as ‘not to believe’. Elements of meaning which are represented by several orthographic words in one language, say English, may be represented by one orthographic word in another, and vice versa. For instance, tennis player is written as one word in Turkish: tenisçi; if it is cheap as one word in Japanese: yasukattara; but the verb type is rendered by three words in Spanish: pasar a maquina. This suggests that there is no one-to-one correspondence between orthographic words and elements of meaning within or across languages.
2.1.3. Introducing morphemes
In order to isolate elements of meaning in words and deal with them more effectively, some linguists have suggested the term morpheme to describe the minimal formal element of meaning in language, as distinct from word, which may or may not contain several elements of meaning. Thus, an important difference between morphemes and words is that a morpheme cannot contain more than one element of meaning and cannot be further analysed.
To take an example from English, inconceivable is written as one word but consists of three morphemes: in, meaning ‘not’, conceive meaning ‘think of or imagine’, and able meaning ‘able to be, fit to be’. A suitable paraphrase for inconceivable would then be ‘cannot be conceived/...
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