Lost in Translation: The Importance of Cultural Context

I have made the point before that cultural context matters when trying to ascribe meaning to something someone from a distant time period or foreign culture has to say. Cultural context refers to what something means in the particular culture being studied. For example, some ritual they do, or tradition by itself might seem meaningless or silly to an outsider, but have deep significance to those within that culture. An opinion that seems arbitrary or illogical to an outsider’s perspective may reflect a different worldview in where such an opinion makes perfect sense. Taken out of their proper context within a culture, anything like rituals, values, opinions, concepts etc… may seem meaningless or misunderstood. Cultural context helps the historian have a much richer appreciation for what they are studying, as they can try to see what it was supposed to mean to an insider, rather than just looking in from the outside. Since every culture has their own worldviews, traditions, values etc… it is a very easy mistake to make to interpret another culture’s message through the eyes of your own culture, not theirs.

While the most obvious cultural misunderstandings happen around customs, traditions, values etc…, there is one particular aspect that is much more overlooked. In anyone’s culture, there are certain things that are so ingrained, that we take for granted and don’t even think of them as cultural, but universal to everyone. These often are abstract concepts in our own worldviews. I never thought of this before either, actually, as for me too, things seem so obvious it is almost alien to think others think differently and still are making any sense. For example, in Western culture, and my own worldview, what makes sense is governed by rules of logic and reasoning. In this worldview, there are truths and untruths, and what is true must be based on evidence that we can somehow sense or figure out, or through rules of logic. It is more analytical and ridged in the way that I found out other cultures do not think in such terms. To them, their worldview is more fluid, how they determine what is in their world to us might seem arbitrary by our standards, but they have a different outlook. Even in the past, most people thought in a different way than we do now. Our worldview in the West has become “scientific” in how it’s grounded in logic and evidence, perhaps only recently once the scientific revolution took place and science as we know it got more prominence in our culture. Even a smaller concept than trying to determine the rules of the cosmos we can easily take for granted.

For example, the concept of time, how it functions seems so obvious to us, but to another culture it is different. Western culture views time as a linear process, heading away from the past, towards the future. Other cultures though, had a cyclical view of time, like in many past agrarian societies the seasons would govern their lives and be on a cycle. For those people, that made sense, as they lived season to season on an agricultural cycle, than an industrial culture in which the cycles of the seasons became irrelevant and one could count the years ever moving forward. The agricultural society however, couldn’t care less about whether it’s been a decade or a century, their crops depended on the repeating cycles of the seasons. Time seems like such an absolute, I mean. Everyone experiences it, and to us, it seems logical to view time as linear; past, present, future…, but even though everyone is aware of time, how it is interpreted can vary.

This creates problems for the historian trying to view a message through the eyes of the culture at the time. We may think we know what they mean when they talk about some concept like “to create” in John Walton’s example in his analysis of Genesis, but they might take the meaning of creating something as different from ours conception of what it is to create something. This is especially tricky for people wanting to get meaning out of religious texts to live by or use as official doctrine. It is not enough to simply feel like you could translate a text and then know what the ancient really meant when they wrote it. You could theoretically weed out all the grammatical and semantic ambiguities, know where the word is used most often, and what it meant in our language, but without the cultural context in the picture too, we still see the meaning through our eyes, not theirs. Another example of this importance of cultural context comes from another author, Dr. Orville Jenkins in his article Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios How Words “Mean” in Greek and English . He is an anthropological linguist, and has worked with other cultures. He gave a great example involving the Greek word aionios, which is translated to mean “eternal” or “everlasting”. Jenkins disagrees with this, as he argues that those words in our culture in English connotate a worldview the Greeks at the time did not have.

The word in English “everlasting” assumes a context of time sequence and measurement, which the word “aionios/aionion” (of the Ages) does not.  The word everlasting indicates a starting point and moving towards what would be an ending point, but without a real ending point.  That is, the focus seems to still be on sequence.

The English word “eternal” further carries an abstract metaphysical connotation not seemingly in focus in ancient dynamic worldviews. The influence of Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish neo-Platonist of the 1st century, was influential in that direction in later European thought.

He goes on the argue the Ancient Greeks at the time did not have those views in their conception of time, or what they meant in the context of what they were trying to say was going to happen the New Testament.

The Greek word, and the messianic idea it attempts to represent, are focused on condition or character, not time or length of time.  In focus is a new age that is different from the current age, in kind and quality.  The focus is not on how long in terms of time sequence. The Greeks, as well as all the ancient peoples, were dynamic and relational in their understanding of the world, even the “philosophical” thinkers.  We call those cultures concrete-relational, or oral-relational.  Modern literacy and the resultant way of thinking analytically since the Enlightenment has affected the actual way people think. The western Rationalist approach to knowledge, reducing matters down to components and analyzing them by linear deduction, has led to a high focus on time sequence and cause and effect by “independent” actors, rather than the connected, relational concepts of reality dominant in the rest of the modern world and universal in ancient human cultures.

That means the ideas of “everlasting” or “eternal” in English have a time-sequence meaning you cannot get away from.  This is just not involved in the Greek (really Hebrew) idea of a New Age. The Greek word in its own context likewise does not carry any connotation of focus on time sequence, but on a period of time as a unit, very like the common words most used to translate it, “age,” “of the age.”

This would present a major misunderstanding for those trying to interpret what will happen according to the New Testament, as a Westerner with a more time-oriented view would misunderstand what the Ancient Greek writer really meant a “New Age” was supposed to be. The concept of the “New Age” as linearly time oriented like in our Western worldview would be illogical and incorrect for a culture with a more relational worldview like the Ancient Greeks. Knowing that leads to a much better understanding. Who knows though too, the Greek translator might have misinterpreted the original Hebrew or Aramaic word through an Ancient Greek cultural lens rather than the original!

Jenkins makes a great point too, in general, that words “mean” only what they mean within a culture’s worldview, not in our own. Greek words mean what they mean within Greek culture, not American culture for instance! One can try to find the nearest functional equivalent, but no word in a foreign language means exactly the same concept as in your own language and culture. I will add even if a word is translated accurately into a word we already have, what that word means to the other culture an be completely different!

The linguistic understanding of meaning is that the meaning of any word or phrase in a language depends on the worldview, the cultural context of the people using that language.  No word in any language means a word in another language.  Put another way, no word in one language is equivalent to a word in any other language.  Or no word in any language can be defined by any word in another language.

Words have meaning only in their cultural worldview context.  And a word can make sense only in the context and structures of its own language.  Meaning is culture-sensitive.  This is simply what we know about how human language works. Most of the classic lexicons or dictionaries don’t give you a meaning of the Greek word.  Most simplistically reference how that word has been translated into English!  So we still don’t know what it MEANT in GREEK!  In the Mediterranean 1st-Century socio-cultural setting!

Jenkins’ article really highlights the importance of cultural context on interpreting what historical people have to say. Without the original cultural context, even with it being perfectly translated grammar-wise and semantically, the message is still “lost in translation”!


Different worldviews, different conclusions…


About History Is Interesting

I like ancient and medieval history!
This entry was posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Opinion Piece. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lost in Translation: The Importance of Cultural Context

  1. Cool blog. I think I’ll become a regular reader!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree that the meaning of a word depends on its cultural context. One can see that when reading English written one or two centuries ago. Word meanings changed, in part to adapt to cultural changes and meanings in one English speaking country can differ significantly from the meaning of that same word in another country. For example in British English one refers to a “scheme” when speaking of a plan or system. For the Brits, there is no negative context to the word. In the U.S. a “scheme” is a plot to facilitate or bring about wrong doing.

    The fact that word meanings depend on cultural context is one of the things that makes language study so interesting. When we study a foreign language, to a certain degree, we must be anthropologists trying to understand the underlying culture because language is largely a tool to communicate cultural perceptions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Retrojackie says:


    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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