Arrival, Translation and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

3rd February 2017

Arrival, if you haven’t already seen it, is a science fiction film based on a short story by Ted Chiang entitled “Story of Your Life”. The plot centres on a linguist, tasked with communicating with the extra-terrestrial visitors but in order to do so, must first translate their native language into something that humans are able understand.

Whilst the film received good reviews and is certainly enjoyable viewing, the movie’s premise is of especial interest to linguists. One of the more interesting ideas about the translation process, and in regards to foreign languages in general, was raised by the main character in conversation with her colleague:

– You know, I was doing some reading about this idea that if you immerse yourself into a foreign language, that you can actually rewire your brain.

– Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

– The theory that…

– It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and…

– Yeah. It affects how you see everything.

Arrival, Translation and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

Although one can be forgiven for thinking that the idea of speaking a foreign language can rewire your brain is a little far-fetched (this is a sci-fi film, after all!), the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis does indeed exist, and is summarised, via Wikipedia, as follows :-

“The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, the principle is often defined to include two versions. The strong version says that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, whereas the weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.”

This theory is quite a powerful one. Does one actually become German simply by stating ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!? I think [in Spanish]. Therefore, I am [Spanish]? Ok, it might take more than a couple of weeks in the South of France to truly immerse oneself in the language and culture, but studies have shown that speaking a second language may change how you see the world.

Leading on from this, it would follow that the translation process is not only about simply transferring information and ideas from one language to another, but also what thought processes are used, and how the recipient interprets that information. When it comes to market research and the translation of market research surveys, could the responses alter depending on which language the respondent is asked to use?

When it comes to international market research and marketing, it is important to understand that the process of translation is not simply a question of swapping the English text for the foreign version – it is about understanding the mind-set of the native speaker and how they expect information in their native language to be presented. Taking the time to get this presentation right will allow you to have a greater influence on your target audience than trying to recreate a word-for-word, literal, translation of the source text.

Foreign Tongues has been providing translation services to the market research industry for over twenty years. We have the experience and knowledge that will help you get your message across and understood by your target audience.

Contact us now for your free, no obligation, translation quote on your next project and our project managers will help you get started on your translation requirements.

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