In terms of linguistic possibility, is it possible to translate any term from one language to another? Expanding, to what extent is it possible to translate scientific or philosophical terms, for example, to tribal cultures? In addition to linguistic challenges, there are also cultural ones. For example, how to translate the term "virus" in all its fullness of meaning to a tribal culture that believes diseases are caused by gods or spells. My goal is to understand if there are ways to convey any type of knowledge from one language to another.

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    Language, yes; people, not necessarily. Those are two separate things. You can absolutely translate any concept into any language, even though sometimes the translation will be more of a description and a lot longer than the source (e.g., Norwegian nålys ‘a faint, blue, shimmering light seen as a halo around a person or place and indicate that death is drawing near for them/it’). Translating the word into the target language doesn’t mean that all its speakers will get it, though, just like you won’t get far describing colours to a blind person or the intricacies of taxes to, well, me. Commented Feb 5 at 21:16
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    I doubt there's even one person in the world who understands the term "virus" in all its fullness of meaning. Moreover, it's practically impossible since the fullness of meaning of this term is getting fuller every day with new research constantly conducted and published. Having a word for a thing doesn't entail having full understanding of that thing, e.g. most people who use smartphones have little to no understanding of how they actually work.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Feb 5 at 21:39
  • Translation is about the meaning produced by words. And I don't speak a tribal culture language but generally, the meaning of most ideas can be translated but in order to do that you would have to be a fluent speaker of that tribal language to avoid giving virus a meaning associated with gods or spells. (By the way, your definition of a tribal culture seems to pit science (non-tribal culture) against tribal culture. Maybe not such a great idea as it diminishes the idea of value of meaning. Also, not sure that virus has "fullness of meaning". It just has a meaning in biology.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 6 at 15:05
  • imo this question is better suited to philosophy.se. Linguists tend not to worry too much about philosophy of language, whereas there are philosophers for whom that's their whole deal
    – Tristan
    Commented Feb 6 at 15:40
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    @Tristan I disagree. I am a translator and the first thing you learn, or almost the first, is what I said. Translating the meaning of words is just not translating words. And this is not philosophy. It's pretty much established fact in the field of translation.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 6 at 17:13

1 Answer 1


Yes, of course, it is possible as demonstrated by great wealth of translations all around the globe. Even difficult texts that introduce new cultural concepts are undertaken all the time, and they are very successful—think of all the Bible translations into languages with a (maybe formerly) polytheist culture.

There are some techniques to deal with culturally foreign items in translation, including borrowing and loan translations. These techniques are quite effective. On a more ad hoc basis, translators can choose to explicate items that are not well-known to the target audience. A text-book example would be

German original: Friedrich Merz says ... (Germans know who Friedrich Merz is)

English translation: The leader of Germany's largest opposition party Friedrich Merz says ...

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