The second story featured in the Radiolab podcast takes a step away from the concept of translation between languages to focus instead on translation between cultures, specifically in the case of the word “serious” and the different connotation that it carries in East Africa.
In that area of the world, as Nairobi-based correspondent Gregory Warner explains, to be “serious” means to take action, rather than merely to talk about a problem. This difference in meaning was once the stumbling block to a very high-profile exchange. Warner introduces the story of Anania Sorri, a young Ethiopian journalist, who had the unusual opportunity to ask John Kerry, US Secretary of State, an unvetted question. Sorri asked about the reaction of the US government to the recent arrest of a number of journalists in Ethiopia, a question that put his own neck on the line. His choice of wording — “is it lip service, or are you seriously concerned about the arrests?”, meaning "are you taking tangible action, or are you just talking about this?" — was, however, misunderstood, leading to a defensive response from Kerry and, unfortunately, a wasted question.
Language barriers are easy to recognise, but misunderstanding is much harder to perceive when both speakers are using the same language. English is far from homogenous; as every speaker will know, differences in spelling, pronunciation and — the part that most often leads to misunderstanding — usage abound even between British English and American English, two of the most well known variants. Take another step closer and, in the UK alone, you can find myriad differences between the dialects of the North and the South — between two neighbouring cities, even. Between generations. Between socio-economic groups. Between genders. And, to top it all off, there is personal preference too – what my sister calls "dinner", I refer to as "lunch" (which may indeed betray our perceived class alliances, but neither of us holds it against the other). Is it really so surprising then that such a misunderstanding could arise between a speaker of US English and one of East African English?
This goes to show that not only can a single language be more intricately complex than one person could hope to comprehend, but such subtleties in dialect and language variant can make or break a speech or a text. When it comes to translation proper, the target readership should always be taken into account — if you want a translation into English of a text that is destined for use in Ethiopia, it would be wise to use a translator who understands all the nuances and implications wrapped up in Ethiopian English. The same applies to texts intended for British or American readers; if you want a translation that truly speaks the language of your target audience, use a translator who truly speaks that variant of the language.
Otherwise, just as with John Kerry and Anania Sorri, your message might fall wide of the mark.