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Keywords:

  • languages;
  • political science;
  • translation;
  • Sapir-Whorf;
  • effability

Diplomacy, international commerce and the academic study of international relations are all based on the assumption that we can cross linguistic borders with very complicated words and concepts in our cognitive luggage. This article studies the complexities of communicating political words and concepts from one language/culture to another, noting that traditional political science has shown little interest in this process or its dangers. From linguistics, however, come two opposing theories: the effability principle defends universal translatability, while the linguistic relativity/Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that meaning (particularly abstract conceptual thinking) is locked within the grammatical and semantic structure of individual languages and can be transmitted with difficulty or not at all. After considering these rival positions, we conclude that the translation of political ideas from culture to culture can be more problematic than we have commonly believed.