This post was originally published in 2017. Many things have changed since then, as global power dynamics have evolved—but the influence of language endures.

How often do you stop to think about the ways in which words affect the world around you? Probably not very often. It’s easy to take language for granted. We see, hear and speak it constantly. We use it to communicate, to understand and to think. It’s the very basis of the complex society in which we live. And yet this immense importance often goes unnoticed, letting language blend into the background precisely as a result of its ubiquity.

Of course, those of us who work in the field of translation have no choice but to pay attention. We make our living by thinking about language—not only in terms of its structure and style, but often also on a much deeper level. Translation is more than just changing words from one language to another. It requires an understanding not only of the literal meaning of each text, but also of its cultural context, its target audience and the intentions behind it. Because of this, translating often brings to light the many ways in which the language we use reflects the world in which we live, as well as its power to influence that world.

A reflection of history

Let’s begin with a broad example. In recent centuries, English has become what many call a “global language.” Some even go so far as to predict that it’s on its way to becoming the “universal language,” meaning that one day everyone across the world will use it to communicate. When it comes to translation, it’s easy to see the traces of these trends. More and more companies, publications and media outlets are making the effort to have their content translated from various other languages to English, knowing that this will allow them to reach a wider audience or clientele.

In other words, English has power: financial power, political power and cultural power. Across the world, people who speak it often enjoy greater opportunities and options than those who don’t. Companies who utilize it are able to expand internationally to an extent that might not otherwise be possible. While we could spend hours discussing the advantages and disadvantages of this reality, the fact is that right now English is arguably the most powerful language in the world.

But why? Why English, and not Spanish, or Swahili, or Cantonese? The answer also has to do with power. Language reflects culture, and in this case the power of English reflects the power of certain countries. Until relatively recently, the United Kingdom held the reins to the world’s largest empire, with colonies scattered across the globe. Their superior industrial capacity meant that they were able to conquer new territories and impose their own cultural norms, laws, religion… and language. As a result, English found its way into nearly every corner of the earth.

Map of the British Empire, helping to explain why the English language is spoken across the globe. Source: Library of Congress
An 18th-century view of the British Empire throughout the world. Source: Library of Congress

The power of language in the age of globalization

Today, of course, the UK no longer disposes of a global empire. But one of its former colonies has arguably overtaken its one-time ruler as the new world leader. The United States may not be considered an empire by traditional terms, but its enormous political, economic and technological power has given it a similar level of influence.

Editor’s note: Since 2017, the cultural power of the United States has undergone significant changes, and today some people are speculating about the decline of the American “empire.”

It doesn’t take the physical conquest of territory or the intentional imposition of English to change linguistic habits. The forces of globalization, often skewed in favor of the United States, are indirectly influencing people around the world to learn English for their own personal gain.

The power of language shouldn't be underestimated. Discover some of the history behind that power and the ways that translation can shape it.

In other words, the former power of the United Kingdom and the current power of the United States have endowed English with a power of its own, which then reinforces the global influence of the countries where it’s spoken. Whether or not it will one day become truly universal is up for debate, but there’s no denying that it’s powerful.

Every word matters

So we know that language has power on a global scale… but what about the individual level? Every word that we read in a magazine article, on a website or in a company newsletter can affect our perceptions and influence our actions. Translators have a unique perspective not only on how language reflects larger societal trends, but also on its influence on individual people. In fact, this small-scale power is something that translators must consider on a daily basis—it’s an integral part of one of the greatest challenges that we face in our work.

Professional and effective translation requires the maintenance of a precarious balance between preserving original meaning and adapting texts to suit new audiences. As translators, we have a responsibility to understand what the writer wants to communicate; not only the literal meaning of their words, but also the intentions and assumptions behind them.

How our words reflect and affect our world. Language is a powerful tool. Discover some of the history behind that power.

However, we also have a responsibility to the reader to provide them with a text that makes sense from their own frame of reference. We must consider the preexisting knowledge and beliefs of the target audience members, who speak a different language from the original writer and therefore exist in a different linguistic and cultural context. In order to create a successful translation, we must adapt the original text to fit this new context, often changing it drastically or even removing some parts altogether.

The translator’s role

This means that translators not only have enormous responsibility, but also an incredible amount of power. The choices we make when translating have a direct impact on how each text is understood, and therefore on how it influences each individual who reads it.

Language is just one of many lenses that refracts meaning on its way from the writer to the reader, and as translators it’s our job to direct and shape this refraction. In order to do it well, we must simultaneously apprehend, adapt, alter and anticipate the meaning and effects of our words.

So next time you read a sign, scribble a note or verbalize an idea, take a moment to reflect on everything those words represent, and remember: just as the power of translation should never be underestimated, neither should the power of language itself.  

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