Posted by: patenttranslator | January 29, 2015

Differences Between Interpretation Systems Used by Different Human Languages and by Animals and Machines

Interpretatio Romana

People have always been translating concepts from other languages into their own language and during the process creating new words in their language and modifying the new concepts to fit a different cultural history of their own language.

The Roman historian Tacitus famously called in his book “Germania” the practice according to which foreign deities belonging to the Greek, Celtic, Gallic or Germanic pantheon were identified with Roman gods “interpretatio Romana”, or “Roman interpretation”.

A good example of this practice can be found for instance in Ceasar’s work “De Bello Gallico” (Gallic War) in which the author simply gives the names of Roman gods (Apollo, Mars, Jupiter) to foreign gods of non-Romans, i.e. barbarians, instead of bothering with the original names.

Similar parallels exist according to some Greek writers also between Egyptian and Greek gods: the king of Egyptian gods Amon is the Greek Zeus; the Egyptian lion goddess Bastet is the Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of chastity, virginity and hunt; the Egyption goddess of joy and love Hathor is the Greek goddess Aphrodite who has basically the same job description, etc.

Interpretatio Germanica

While several days bearing names of Roman gods, which eventually became also names of celestial bodies, feature prominently in the names of the week in many European languages, especially in Romance languages, in an interesting version of what Tacitus might have called “interpretatio Germanica” the names of four Roman Gods were substituted by mighty Teutonic deities in Germanic languages: Mars was replaced by Tiw, the god of war; Mercury was replaced by Woden, the god of wisdom; Jupiter was replaced by Thor, the god of thunder; and Venus was replaced by Frigg, the goddess of love (how can one not love such a name for a goddess of love?)

Insolentia Slavica et Differentia Asiatica

Because Slavs prefer to create their own systems, starting with the alphabet, and to ignore the rest of the world, Slavic languages completely ignored Roman and Germanic deities and basically numbered the days of the week based on the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle by starting with a day when it is perfectly OK to be loafing around while drinking a few goblets of mead.

For comparison, it is also interesting to note various Asian languages also ignore assorted deities and that the days of the week in Japanese, which originate in Chinese, as well as in Vietnamese and other languages are based on two celestial bodies: Sun = 日, and Moon = 月, in combination with the ancient Chinese Theory of Five Elements of which the entire universe consists according to the Chinese cosmological system: Fire = 火, Water = 水, Wood = 木, Gold = 金, and Earth = 土.

The names of the week in Latin, Old English, German, French, Czech, and Japanese (originating in Chinese)Table 3

Regnum Bestiae et Interpretatio Canina

These various systems that humans have been developing for the last few thousand years for everything that needs to be organized, classified and unified are often linked in similar and sometime even quite different languages based on what humans call “speech”.

No doubt animals have their own systems for their own information databases that make up the totality of their world, which may never be known to conceited humans who are convinced that animals are inferior to them because they may never be able to learn the names of the days in the week, not even in one language.

If we are so vastly superior to animals, how is it possible that we can’t find a language enabling us to really talk to them in order to find out more about them?

How do for example dogs organize and classify the system of smells that is so important to them in the canine universe, unlike the names of all those important Roman or Teutonic deities which are so near and dear to humans? We will probably never find out anything about the systems that they use because dogs refuse to learn more than a few words in a human language.

If we are so sure about our superiority when it comes to gathering information about the world around us, why is it that humans will never be capable of gathering more than a small fraction of information that every stupid dog will automatically acquire through the nose.

Dogs have developed their own systems for interpreting the world surrounding them, which Tacitus might have called “interpretatio canina“, and although they do not even see colors, they can track faint scents for miles and smell fear and happiness in humans, as well as cancerous cells.

Smart as we think we are, due to the huge and seemingly unbridgeable gap between the interpretatio humana and interpretatio canina, there is not a single oncologist on this planet who would be able to provide a simple diagnostic service of this kind, while just about any dog will be happy to zoom in on cancerous cells for a treat, but only if we can figure out how to explain the task to a canine in a canine language that humans are unable to learn.

Interpretatio Machinaria

That could very well be the name that Tacitus might have given to machine translation because translation has always been about interpretation. But while humans speaking different languages can quite easily interpret, modify and adopt concepts originating in other languages, and most dogs can learn a few words in a human language (although it would not be a good idea to ask them to learn too many bothersome and uninteresting sounds that humans make in a world that is full of so many fascinating smells), as machines have no reasoning power of their own (only rules that have been preprogrammed into a machine by a human programmer), instead of working with a language of meaningful words, or with a language of equally meaningful smells, they can only work with a language of simple instructions preprogrammed as series of zeroes and ones.

While the statement that humans will never be able to develop a sense of smell that would rival the sense of smell of their four-legged companions would not be surprising to most people, thanks to the hype surrounding machine translation, the statement that machines will never be able to translate anything, (if by translation we mean interpretation of the real meaning of what is being said), is surprising to most people, and people will argue ad nauseam that human translators will one day soon be replaced by machines.

And yet, both statements are equally true.


  1. Days of the week in Chinese are usually 星期 xīngqī followed by a number for the first six days of the week (星期一 xīngqīyī for Monday through 星期六 for Saturday) followed by 星期日 or 星期天 for Sunday. 星期 may be replaced by 礼拜 lǐbài, or by 周 zhōu (but in that case Sunday is only 周日).


  2. The days of week in Japanese originate in Chinese. But you are right and changed the wording.


  3. If only to round out the picture …,_2002


  4. They are just imitating the French Republican calendar, which lasted for whole 12 years:

    The Polish calendar is also interesting

    – I always have to look up “luty” and “pazdiernik” the way I have to look up Japanese years (2015 is Heisei 27, but I always hesitate).


  5. Machine translation is indeed getting better and better, but will it evolve into something that is better than humans? That remains to be seen because language is constantly evolving. Words that were commonly used during the middle ages are now obsolete, and new words are springing up every now and then. In a sense, proper language becomes obsolete, street language becomes proper, and slang gives rise to new words that will eventually be absorbed in the same cycle.

    Vote still goes to human translation. No machine can absorb nuances of culture, intonation, and everything else that makes human languages complicated even to our best canine of friends.


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