The Meaning of Words

My first university studies were in translation. I never worked in the field because I am not perfectly bilingual, having never lived in English. I read and write often in English, but I speak it only occasionally and I still make mistakes that my readers are welcome to point out to me.

Translators have an unflattering Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore – “Translator, traitor”. In any translation, no matter how literal, there are things lost, added, interpreted. It is the essential part of the trade to choose the words, phrases or style conveying a meaning as close as possible to the original, but even a very good translation will have a different ring, as both the language and the translator have a different voice and style. A fair translation is usually not quite as good as an original text of high quality, but in some rare cases an original of relatively lesser quality might appear in translation as the work of a genius, like Belloc said about Kipling and Chesterton :

Fate would have it that Kipling should be translated into French by a genius, who makes him in that language a far greater writer than he is. […] Chesterton’s work has never been properly translated into French, and three-quarters of the ideas he had to put forward were so unfamiliar to foreigners that they could hardly be understood by them. (Hilaire Belloc, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters)

When speaking or writing, even in our mother tongue, we are in fact translating our thoughts in words and the problems are the same as if we were translating from one language to another. The rules and meaning of words must be agreed on by all parts and are not subject to personal interpretation, otherwise understanding is not possible.

In fact, there are many errors in philosophy and many heresies or schisms that would not have arisen if their leaders had understood correctly the basics of language, history, religion, philosophy, and had not let themselves be carried away by emotions and passions. Maritain complained more than once about the warping of language operated by modern thinkers.

The perfect example nowadays is Political Correctness, which pervades the Liberal Left. PC works by reversing the meaning of words or concepts applying to the target of the day, in order to overthrow and destroy it. Success is achieved by the sheer appeal to emotions and passions. Political Correctness easily satisfies the appetite for conformity and acceptance in people deprived of any consistent intellectual, spiritual or moral compass. If the people under its power understood what is going on, the Politically Correct tyranny would crumble instantly, for it can in no way stand the test of common sense.

John C. Wright wrote an enlightening analysis of Political Correctness in a two-part essay, “Political Correctness is the Substance of Darkness” (Nov. 2011), and in a shorter essay this week : “Thought Police and the Poets” (March 2012). He often touches the theme in other posts and replies throughout his journal.