Sunday, September 12, 2021

Heart-felt words, more or less


[Hammer and nails*]

Emotions have nuances that must be expressed in some manner by language. Of course, every language has its own strategy for distinguishing levels of attachment, including using completely different words or merely adding describers.  Examples of such important distinctions involve residence, approval and joy, which are reflected in different ways in English, French, Hebrew and Russian.

[Urban houses]
In English, there is a vital difference between house and home. The former is a building, generally not attached to other residences. It can be bought, surveyed, destroyed and repaired, to name a few actions, with very little emotional cost. By contrast, the latter is where, as Pliny said, the heart is. What matters is not the physical characteristics of the residence – it could be an isolated house or a flat in a 24-story building - but instead the memories people have of it. In practical terms, after people leave their childhood home, they look for a house that can become a home. Thus, English uses two different words. French has a word for both meanings, which can be understood by context, maison, but can use a preposition, chez, combined with a name to reinforce the attachment. For example, the English expression “there is no place like home” would be “on n'est vraiment bien que chez soi”. The Hebrew word for home בית [biet] covers both elements but becomes much more emotional in its locative form הביתה [habeita]: אני הולך הביתה. [ani holech habeita] - I am going homeward literally. Russian is similar in that the nominative form дом [dome] applies to both with the locative form домой [domou], implying an emotional attachment. Of course, adding a possessive adjective such as my, his or her before the word for house creates the attachment of the basic word home. Not all houses are homes.

[Loving fingers]
As anybody that has been disappointed in their search for a partner knows, like and love are not identical even if they both technically express a positive opinion. The latter is much more passionate and intense. For example, almost everybody likes chocolate but far fewer truly love it. Again, English, rich in vocabulary, distinguishes them by using two different words making it easy to understand. Russian also distinguishes the mellow from the passionate using two words нравиться [nravitza] and любить[lyubitz]. Likewise, Hebrew uses the rather lengthy מוצא חן בעיניי [moze chen be’aini] or shorter חובב [hovev] to say “I like”, with אוהב [ohev] generally but not always expressing love. The French has the generic and ambiguous verb aimer but can distinguish the lessor form by adding the adverb “bien” as in “j’aime bien le champagne”, which implies that the person won’t refuse to drink the bubbly but won’t buy an expensive bottle at an auction. It is clear that liking is not very romantic.

[Old woman smiling]
Happiness is not so simple either. There is the joy of receiving a wonderful gift but there is a less intensive but longer-lasting pleasure of having made the right career choice even if not every day is a joy. In short, some happiness is momentary while other is much more rooted. English is forced to use a French root to clearly express the second meaning, specifically content, as in “he has never been so content with his life”. French and Hebrew have separate words, content and heureux and שמח [sameah] and מאושר [meushar], respectively. Likewise, Russian has счастливый [schazlivi] and доволен [dovolen], although the difference is often contextual. Happiness, like beauty, can be for a night or constant, if not eternal.

The most difficult and often most important words to translate involve emotions. Some languages use different words to distinguish levels while others merely modify the basic term. Whatever the case, understanding the hidden text is both vital and quite interesting, at least to translators. They need to express their heart, linguistically that is.

* Use picture captions to help the blind. All pictures via the Pixabay site.

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