The true meaning of language depends on perception

This morning’s Chicago Tribune had a great article related to the nature of language. The author, Vicki Ortiz Healy wrote the article entitled Foul! Must we call in word referees to monitor language? . The story discusses her use of words that sound taboo but after some detailed research she discovers the real truth.

The author of the story explains the odd reactions she received from two different acquaintances after using the words renege and shyster. The conversations occurred in two separate incidents within the context of two separate discussions. The first acquaintance took exception with the word renege saying that it had racial overtones related to the word Negro. The second term was shyster, the acquaintance said this term was off-limits because it had anti-Semitic connotations.

Ms. Ortiz-Healy had her doubts about her friends reactions so she bounced the terms off of other friends and colleagues to get their take on the reaction of her two acquaintances. Everyone agreed that the terms did not have negative connotations.

The author then decided to get real proof. She consulted with some university professors specializing in linguistics. She discovered that neither term has roots in racism or ethnocentrism. Renege comes from the word negate and shyster comes from the word for feces in German.

The professors contended that some individuals suffer from a hyper-sensitivity to words that could be considered offensive. The condition is called avoidance.

The reason I found this article so interesting is because of the basic premise that one person’s view of a term can be radically different than another person’s definition of the same term. Herein lies the challenge of client reviews. In my opinion, the client review hinges completely on two very important factors:

-comprehension of the original source text

-perception of the language used to describe or translate the original text

The subject and process around client review is often discussed in translation circles but typically misunderstood. We believe that the mix of the proper technology and appropriate people needs to be allocated to provide the best results. We hope to discuss the topic in greater details in subsequent posts.

The author’s acquaintances made a mistake in misinterpreting her use of two words. Client reviewers sometimes make similar mistakes in judgment when reviewing translation projects. The key is perception.