Holidays are meaningful times of the year. Without the lens of human perspective, the days are just another rotation of the Earth’s 365 orbital revolutions around the sun. Humans are the only creatures on the earth that give significance to particular days of the year. What does this have to do with language? In a way, it has everything to do with language; holidays (literally from the words holy and day) wouldn’t exist without human language.
Reason for the Season
Language is about ascribing a sound and meaning to an idea, that can then be communicated to others who understand the relevant sounds and meanings. Holidays are essentially, for lack of a better metaphor, big presents of meaning attached to a single day. For the sake of timing and popularity, we’ll use Christmas as an example.
If you say to someone, “It’s Christmas,” and they know what you are referring to, congratulations! You just participated in one of the biggest transfers of meaning that a word can have. That person is then thinking about the Nativity, Santa Claus, gifts, cookies, Christmas trees, snow, caroling, the Grinch, and more! But wait- there’s a problem here, what if Santa Claus, Christmas trees, snow, and the Grinch aren’t part of someone’s meaning of Christmas. Christmas in Brazil lacks snow entirely, and Santa Claus isn’t called Santa Claus but Papai Noel. Even the name of the same holiday may be different:
Christmas – English
Joulu – Finnish
Jul – Swedish
Natal – Portuguese
Natale – Italian
Navidad – Spanish
Noel – French
Weihnachten – German
The Thought That Counts
With these different names, the meaning changes, just as it does in translation. As the meaning changes, the holiday changes with it. In Germany, advent wreaths aren’t uncommon, but in the United States, wreaths are more commonly found on windows and doors, and many of us wouldn’t think of putting them indoors with candles, in fact, that might make some U.S. citizens very nervous about fire hazards. Though many families will have a ham dinner on Christmas, to some cultures, eating ham on any day of the year, especially a holiday, is completely unheard of and is the opposite of holy.
Part of working in translation and language services is helping others learn to understand the cultures and customs that are different than their own. If something sounds strange in one culture, it just takes a bit of translating. That’s why translation isn’t just about the words used, but the meaning behind the words. Understanding the culture of a target language is pivotal to successful translation.
Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, or you celebrated Hanukkah, or your favorite holiday is months away, happy holidays from us at Tone. We hope that translates well!
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