An accurate translation is a many-splendoured thing; offense arising through a failure to make one’s meaning clear is, well, whatever the opposite of ‘many-splendoured’ would be. Let’s say you’re at a formal event of some kind, the conversation flows freely and then, making use of the idiom whose complete mastery you have yet to achieve, you make a comment that immediately elicits exchanged glances and embarrassed titter from your interlocutors – not a nice feeling at all.
Translation is more than just a matter of replacing one set of words with another; it requires the wholesale transposition of information expressed within the framework imposed by one language into the very different framework imposed by another. The new language may make demands on the information thus expressed that the previous language did not, or may, conversely, call for the elimination of some of the information conveyed in the source. This is because every language expresses both linguistically and culturally important concepts, and, crucially, each language decides which linguistic and cultural concepts are important to its speakers and listeners (whether they know it or not).
Anyone who has studied French or German or any language which insists on every single noun having a gender and every single adjective agreeing with every noun knows what I mean. English does not require that the gender of all nouns be specified or that adjectives agree with the nouns they modify. English pronouns are only gender-specific in respect of entities deemed to have a biological gender. In some languages, like Turkish, pronouns are not gender-specific at all and questions of agreement and grammatical gender are entirely non-existent.
Gender and adjective-noun agreement are only two of the potential variables between one language and another and can, by and large, be dealt with in ignorance of the cultural niceties that underpin interactions taking place in, say, French, German or Turkish. There are, however, other, more menacing dragons to be slain if speaker (or writer) A is to communicate unproblematically with speaker (or writer) B. Among these, indeed, among the very worst of all, is the possibility of causing offence when none is intended. As someone who has offended vast numbers of people in multiple languages without wanting to, I can assure you, dear reader, that the experience is not at all a pleasant one – for the offender or for the offended.
Now, let us put aside the small beer of grammatical gender and agreement – it is, after all, a forgivable offence to get them wrong (again, this is the voice of experience speaking) – and consider the much meatier topic of culturally appropriate language and levels of formality. In some languages, such as Japanese, politeness is built in to every possible utterance in a very explicit way. So if you are going to say something in Japanese then you are going to have to think about politeness before you say it. Every student of Japanese learns this from the very outset of his or her studies and, although the field of Japanese linguistic politeness is pitfall-ridden, it is at least taught explicitly and, general speaking, signalled throughout the process of learning the language. Therefore, anyone who has learned any Japanese will usually be able to ask where the bathroom is without anyone being embarrassed.
But of course, there is so much more that can go wrong than the location of a bathroom. Japanese, seeing as I mentioned it above, is a veritable minefield of potential faux pas – but at least it is known for that. Portuguese, a language not usually handled as if it were a hazardous substance, nonetheless offers innumerable opportunities for the careless speaker to put foot in mouth. The same is true of Czech, Chinese, Spanish; indeed [weltschmerzy sigh], it’s true of any language I’ve ever spoken. The fact is that every human language comes with a pile of cultural baggage. It might be a language spoken on the other side of the planet or it might be the idiom of the folks in the country next door – there is always the potential to cause offense. That’s part of the reason why war is innate to the human condition.
The matter of getting language right is important always, but it is of especial importance at formal occasions. An international meeting, conference or seminar will almost invariably involve participants from a variety of linguistic and, by extension, cultural backgrounds, and all of these will need to be catered for.
And this is where translators and interpreters come into their own. It’s not enough to find any old willing and available bilingual functionary – what’s called for in such a situation is a professional. Any interpreter or translator worth his or her salt can advise a speaker about the appropriateness of a joke in a keynote speech, the correct way to address an honoured guest and such matters as whether to shake hands or bow, and so on and so forth. Pitfalls avoided, you can be sure no-one will be offended and your conference can proceed smoothly. Not quite universal understanding or a brotherhood of man, but a good start.