English: Edward Sapir (1884-1939), linguist, a...

Edward Sapir

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, grossly simplified, goes like this: “the semantic structure of a language shapes or limits the ways in which a speaker forms conceptions of the world” (Nordquist). How, then, can we talk about enhancing our fluency in a foreign language without taking the formation of meaning into account? One of the reasons I love Sapir-Whorf, as controversial and unprovable as the hypothesis remains, is that it assumes the inseparability of language and meaning. This is especially interesting to me since I have begun to teach a practicum in conversational English to graduate students in an interpretation school.

Consider what Edward Sapir says in “The Status of Linguistics as a Science”: “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.” If we accept these assumptions, the interpreter becomes a gateway for meaning, an arbiter of what can be said and, consequently, of what can be meant.

One of the lessons I’ve already learned about language interpretation is that it’s not simply conveying the information from one language into another; it’s absorbing meaning created by one language and recreating a highly similar meaning in another. And therein lies the art, as far as I understand it.