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Why Translators Should Study Philology: Introduction and 'Kaput'

April 23, 2017

If you are a translator but not also a philology ‘nerd’, then you, mio amico, are missing out! Philologists study how languages and words develop, and they employ history, linguistics, and literary criticism to these ends.


Over the next few months I shall compose a series of posts to explain how philology has helped me to become a better translator and how it might help others. To begin this series, here is a little background information:


Did you know that English, Spanish, and Italian all share a common ancestor? And no, it is not Latin (well, not exactly). The ancestor shared by these languages (along with Greek, Lithuanian, Hindi, Russian, Farsi, and MANY more) is known as Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Indo-European is a language that was spoken between 4000 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E. in the western Eurasian Steppe Region.


As speakers of this language migrated across Europe and Asia through the years, the original language evolved into many others. These languages can be grouped into different subfamilies, which, going more or less east to west, are: Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Hellenic, Italic, Germanic, and Celtic. Proto-Germanic ultimately gave rise to English, which also has a strong Latin and French influence.




You may be thinking that this is all very interesting on a theoretical level, but how could it be of use to the translator in her day-to-day work?


Take, for example, the Proto-Indo-European word kaput, which means “head.” The Italian word for head, capo, and the English head both come from this same Proto-Indo-European root.


That is a lot of information about the relation between the words head and capo, but what does that knowledge actually offer the translator? Indeed, one would hope that any translator worth her salt would be able to decipher such a common word, or at the very least be able to take a few seconds to look it up. The utility of this knowledge becomes clear when we see how many other words are related to them. This knowledge is a very helpful heuristic device when one comes upon certain words that are less familiar.


Please note that I do not mean to confuse etymology with meaning, but to point out that the former can be a helpful device for arriving at the latter.


Thus, we can see that Philology can be tremendously helpful to the translator because it teaches her to recognize patterns. Please note that this is a rough summary of an enormous amount of information. There is so much more to discover about the history of the languages we speak today, and I look forward to further exploring how it relates to translation!

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