Wednesday Word: Confess/Adopt

I confess… I would adopt these kittens.

But the words “confess” and “adopt” – same or different?

In the theory of translation, we talk about “areas of meaning.” For a word (or phrase), its unique area of meaning is all the senses it can have, all the situations in which it may be used. And it is the difference in areas of meaning that causes a lot of the misunderstandings that arise from literal (or form-based) translation.

The areas of meaning for words in different languages do not line up with a one-to-one correspondence! That is, a word in Language A will hardly even have exactly the same range of senses (area of meaning) as what we might consider to be the “same word” in Language B.

For example, in English, we adopt a child, we confess our crimes and we cover someone else’s debts. The last one is an idiom (cp. Australia’s shout, whereas Americans might treat someone to lunch.) But adopt and confess are not idioms.

But in Palawano, to adopt, to confess and to pay for someone’s debt are all the same word: ako. So in translating from English, the senses of three distinct words merge into one. Going the other way, one Palawano word has three English options, depending on the context. It isn’t always easy to figure out, but in this case we can see that the common denominator of meaning seems to be “to take responsibility for” something or someone.

In another Philippine language, Tagalog, to “confess” is literally to accept or receive (although confessing sins to a priest requires a specific word). But to pay someone’s debt in Tagalog is to answer them. So a literal, “I will answer for you,” is a promise to pay on behalf of the other person. In English we might speak of being “answerable” for something, but that’s a different meaning.

There are similar issues that come up for Filipinos trying to translate between related languages like Palawano and Tagalog. We have seen that in Palawano, ako means to “adopt,” to “confess” or “to take responsibility for.” But ako is a word in Tagalog, too. However, in Tagalog it means to “promise.” A similar meaning, since one might promise to care for a child, or promise to pay. Similar, but different. (Does anyone reading this blog even use the expression close, but no cigar anymore? Maybe I’m showing my age.)

This just illustrates once again how careful we must be to translate based on the meaning in a particular context.

Meanwhile, I still want those kittens…


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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4 Responses to Wednesday Word: Confess/Adopt

  1. Suzy says:

    Okay, Teach. Get us into the lesson by posting photos of adorable kittens. Very sneaky.

  2. may says:

    Fascinating, Bill! I love these posts about translation. Something I know nothing about, but you make it accessible and entertaining.

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