Knowledge transfer

The American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argued that language and perception are inextricably intertwined. While this idea, known as the “Whorfian hypothesis,” fell into disrepute in the 1960s, linguists have shown a renewed interest in “linguistic determinism” in recent years, presenting robust evidence in various studies that language shapes basic cognitive processes, including one’s sense of direction, numeracy, and perception of color. Although it would be a mistake to overemphasize the extent to which language structures experience, the opponents of the  Whorfian hypothesis – such as Steven Pinker, who argues that thought always “precedes” linguistic representation – seem far too eager to dismiss the strong empirical and common-sense evidence for linguistically driven cognition. Indeed, my everyday experience dealing with nuances of meaning in English and German has made me a strong proponent of the view that language mediates perception, even though it can be extremely difficult to disentangle language from culture, as many apparent cases of divergence in “perceptual habitus,” as it were, can easily be ascribed to divergence in cultural experience. Yet not always.

One excellent example of “grammar-driven perception” concerns the ease with which the German language can often represent abstract domains of activity as concrete “things” in ways that have no direct analogue in English. Indeed, this Verdinglichung (or “reification”) of notions that appear to English speakers to be quite “abstract” is a crucial difference between German and English. This difference is related to how German relies more extensively on nouns forms, or Substantivierungen, to express meaning. This linguistic difference is unrelated to “cultural” experience, but is related to how the language structures the modes of expression that one is “pushed” toward, like the ruts in a dirt road, when one seeks to make pronouncements about the world.

Let us turn to an example: “Wissenstransfer” is an interesting term that is well established in German but has no real equivalent in English. While online dictionaries such as LEO invariably translate the term as “knowledge transfer” in English, this  translation is inadequate: not only is it odd and ambiguous, it is simply inaccurate. In German, Wissenstransfer refers to the “activity of applying insights from academic research to the domain of real-world practice” (my definition). To my knowledge, there is no overarching term for this activity in English. Accordingly, the only solution when moving between German and English is to flesh out the intended meaning with a detailed explanation. In the text I was working on today, for example, it was stated at one point that “[the economists] sind auch im Wissenstrasfer aktiv.” The direct translation would read: “The economists are also active in knowledge transfer.” My more accurate translation that is sensitive to the absence of this term in English reads: “The economists also work to disseminate their research findings among policy-makers, thus encouraging their real-world application.”

While I believe this is an accurate translation, notice that in my version , “Wissenstransfer” is no longer a “thing,” but rather a fairly abstract field of endeavor. While this change to the “framing of the referent” was unproblematic in the aforementioned text, in other contexts this type of modification can fatally undermine the translation, because the activity is no longer conceived of in superordinate terms as a “thing” that can be set in easy relation to other “objects”. As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to refer to the “thing” on a repeated basis (among other problems that I will not even attempt to unpack here).

In any event, beyond the various implications that German’s tendency to reify the abstract has for the “conceptual habitus” of its speakers, I think a sheer awareness for this point of difference between German and English can improve one’s skill as a translator, for it allows one to recognize the underlying reasons as to why a translation is not working, thus allowing problems to be eradicated at the root.

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