Blog: The problem of translating – does it ever end?

Last week, we talked about the problem of translating certain words and concepts into other languages (if you missed last week’s blog you can take a read of it here). This week we’re moving onto family and colours.

Surely family correlates easily across languages, right?

Words for ‘relatives’ are often some of the first things you learn in a new language and always seem to feature in school curricula, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that they correlate nicely between languages. Surely a grandpa is always a ‘grandpa’ and a ‘brother’ is always a brother, right? Well turns out, there are many other ways of expressing them! English in fact is woefully lacking in nuance when it comes to relatives. Let’s just take brothers and sisters: in English, you have to separately specify whether you’re referring to older or younger siblings, whereas other languages, such as Chinese, have separate words for each ‘姐姐‘ for an older sister, and ‘妹妹 for a younger sister.

In Basque, you even have separate words for the term a female would use when speaking about her brother ‘neba, to that which a male would use for his ‘anaia. Parents’ siblings are equally separate in many tongues: take Latin, where you don’t simply have an uncle, but either a ‘patruus if it’s your father’s brother, or an ‘avunculus if it’s your mother’s. Hindi combines age and subject and comes up with separate words for the uncle who is your father’s younger brother, ‘चाचा, and the uncle who is your father’s older brother, ‘ताया. You can imagine the refreshing amount of clarification implicit in conversation in such languages, and the frustrating sense of ignorance experienced by learners of a language such as English, where you have to ask probing questions to figure out exactly who the relation is.


So what about colours

It can be hard to get your head around the fact that the way you separate colours in your own mind may simply not be translatable, as this seems such a fundamental element in considering and describing the world around you. The reason is that different languages have different numbers of basic colours: in English, we have 11; in Russian, we have 12, as there are distinct words for what in English would be classified ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’.

Other languages have far fewer colours, with many combining all shades of green and blue into one word, which linguistically is referred to as ‘grue’. The fascinating research done into vocabulary acquisition for colours shows that even far flung cultures will develop names for colours in the same prescribed order, with pink and orange coming towards the end of the list. This may be why the terms for these colours often get borrowed from something else which already exists in the language (most often, the fruit orange will lend its name to the colour, when the colour is considered in need of a term of its own).

We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about our top three language quirks, over the last two weeks. We look forward to sharing more detailed nuances with you in the future!

Language Producer

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