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Ecolinguistics, Translation, and Planet Earth

Language is the primary medium humans use to capture and share what we experience. Translation is the art of carrying a message created in one language to the speakers of another language. Language and translation knit humans around the world together for a myriad of causes. But what about the world itself?

ecolinguistic Skrivanek

Ecolinguistics” refers today to an emerging branch of linguistics that focuses on how human language affects the way we interact with the natural world. A man named Michael Halliday brought “ecolinguistics” to the global discussion in 1990, asking the question, “To what extent are linguistic structures and peculiarities of texts involved in the environmental problems?”

Practically speaking, climate changes on the planet are causing crises all over its surface, but solutions require cooperation among millions. Sometimes such cooperation means partnerships between natives in the rural part of a country, with foreign scientists who may have tools and solutions, and who also need native eyewitness information. Here there is an essential and growing role for translators and interpreters with an ecolinguistics background. Such translators, with specialized understanding of complex environmental issues and terminology, were critical to every phase of the Paris Climate Agreement, for instance.

It is a field whose roots go deep into psychological questions as well as practical purposes. Questions like, how do the stories we tell others and ourselves influence how we treat our environments? Because, after all, the way we treat our rivers, oceans, land, and fellow creatures is based on our beliefs – beliefs defined and transferred by language. Ecolinguistics seeks to detect how those beliefs and stories have led us to make choices that have had profound effects on our natural world. It is a field of study that examines deeply ingrained narratives about what we think our rights and purposes are, and what the planet Earth is…stories that may need to be re-examined and replaced by less destructive ones.

Ecolinguistics scholar, Arran Stibbe (founder of the Ecolinguistics Association), says, “Part of the role of ecolinguistics is resisting the stories that underpin an unequal and ecologically destructive society, but an equally important part is the search for new stories to live by.” 

Another question ecolinguistics studies examine is what important details our thousands of human languages may contain in their lexicons. Perhaps some of the languages of indigenous people, for instance, contain knowledge about protecting ecosystems or healing illness that we need but have not learned or embraced in modern societies. Here again our translators act as bridges between vast populations of people needing critical information that might be only preserved in the rare language of a distant land.

J. V. McShulskis