God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words

“Luck” is an interesting word in English, because people can have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but if they are “lucky” it only means “good luck.” That is, the word “luck” can refer to positive or negative things, but in order to mean something negative, it has to be qualified, either explicitly or by context.

“Omen” works pretty much the same way, except in the opposite direction, at least in my dialect. An “omen” is ominous and foreboding by default, but there are “good omens” as well as “bad omens.”

We learn at least two lessons from these observations.

First, it’s not hard to imagine a language that has words for “luck” and “omen” but whose default meanings are reversed. For convenience, we can call such a language English-B, and call the words luck-B and omen-B. The English-B phrase “good luck-B” should (probably) be translated “good luck” into English, and the English-B phrase “bad luck-B” should (again, probably) be “bad luck,” but what should be done with “luck-B”? Remember, in English-B it means “bad luck,” but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “bad luck-B.”

Secondly, we see more generally that words can have default meanings that can be overridden overtly or covertly by context.

October 5, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , | 3 Comments