Languages differ in what they MUST say

There is a popular belief that some things can only be expressed in some languages and not in other languages. The linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) took issue with that belief in his well-known statement: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey’. That statement appears in his short essay On Linguistic Aspects of Translation (1959).

Implications for Translation

The target language may require the translator to make the distinctions that the source language does not make. Jacobson draws out some implications of this fact for translation.

One example Jakobson discusses is how to translate the English sentence ‘I hired a worker’ into Russian. To translate this, a Russian needs to know more:

  • whether this action was completed or not. The Russian must choose between verbs of completive (perfective) aspect and non-completive (imperfective) aspect—нанял or нанимал.
  • whether the worker was a man or a woman. The Russian must choose between a masculine noun (работника) and a feminine noun (работницу). The utterer of the English sentence may view that distinction as irrelevant or indiscreet.

On the other hand, if we want to translate the Russian version back into English, the Russian version will not tell us whether I ‘hired’ or ‘have hired’ the worker, or whether the worker was definite (‘the worker’) or indefinite (‘a worker’).

Another example

English discriminates between 2 grammatical numbers (singular and plural) but some languages discriminate between 3 numbers (singular, dual and plural). The example Jacobson gives is Old Russian, though some languages still used today also do that—for instance, Slovenian (like Russian, a member of the Slavonic family). To translate the English sentence ‘She has brothers’ into a language that has a dual, we must either:

  • choose ourselves between two statements—’She has two brothers’ or ‘She has more than two brothers’; or
  • leave the decision to the listener—She has either two or more than two brothers’.

Similarly, in translating from a language without grammatical number into English we must either:

  • select one of the two possibilities—‘brother’ or ‘brothers’;
  • or just confront the receiver of this message with a two-way choice—‘She has either one or more than one brother’.


Jakobson’s essay gives some interesting examples of how a category such as grammatical gender can affect how people personify or metaphorically interpret inanimate nouns:

  • a test in the Moscow Psychological Institute (1915) showed that Russians consistently represented Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday as males and Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday as females, without realising that this they did this because the first 3 nouns are grammatically masculine (понедельник, вторник, четверг) and the other 3 (среда, пятница, суббота) are feminine.
  • the fact that the word for Friday is masculine in some Slavic languages but feminine leads to differences between the Friday rituals of peoples concerned.
  • there is a widespread Russian superstition that a fallen knife presages a male guest and a fallen fork a female one. This reflects the masculine gender of нож (‘knife’) and the feminine of вилка (‘fork’)” in Russian.
  • in Slavonic and other languages where ‘day’ is masculine and ‘night’ is feminine, poets represented day as the lover of night.
  • it baffled the Russian painter Repin that German artists depicted why Sin as a woman: he did not realize that ‘sin’ is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (грех).
  • a Russian child reading a translation of German tales was astounded to find Death, obviously a woman (Russian смерть, fem.), pictured as an old man (German der Tod, masc.). 
  • My Sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where жизнь (‘life’) is feminine, but reduced the Czech poet Josef Hora to despair in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine život.
  • the translator’s difficulty in preserving the symbolism of genders, appears to be the main topic of the earliest Slavonic original work. In his preface to the first translation of the Evangeliarium, made in the early 860’s, the founder of Slavonic letters and liturgy, Constantine the Philosopher says: “Greek, when translated into another language, cannot always be reproduced identically. … “Masculine nouns ‘river’ and ‘star’ in Greek, are feminine in another language as река and звезда in Slavonic.” This divergence effaces the symbolic identification of the rivers with demons and of the stars with angels. 


Jakobson’s essay On Linguistic Aspects of Translation is available at:

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