Picture Of The World Of The Mother Tongue And Understanding Of Fiction


The author of the article suggests that it is the picture of the world created by the readers’ mother tongue that takes a special place among the factors influencing the understanding of fiction in a foreign language. The picture of the world created by the mother tongue is taken by its speakers for granted and therefore they often tend to interpret texts in a foreign language relying on concepts of reality that either do not exist in the picture of the world of that language or are slightly different in their meaning. This can result in misunderstanding or misinterpretation of fiction in a foreign language by readers. In order to prove this point the author has analysed a Russian translation of the original text of the short story “Das Brot” by Wolfgang Borchert, made by a fifth-year-student of German. The article contains both texts of the short story in German and Russian and the author’s commentary on the mistakes.

Keywords: Picture of the world of the mother tonguekey conceptBrot


The following article is devoted to the problem of adequate understanding of fiction in a foreign language.

After years of teaching foreign languages (first German and now English) as a speciality to prospective teachers and translators (interpreters) the author has come to a conclusion that there are considerable discrepancies between what has been written by the author of a foreign fiction and what has been understood by the readers.

The analysis of written translations and oral statements made by students during discussions at home reading lessons led the author to the hypothesis that the picture of the world created by the mother tongue is one of the key factors that influence the understanding of literature in a foreign language.

Problem Statement

According to W. von Humboldt language is the outer appearance of the spirit of a people; the language is their spirit and the spirit their language. In the process of conceptualisation of the world every language connects sounds with the results of mental activity in its own way thus reflecting the collective outlook of the nation. (Humboldt, 1999) This further suggests that works of fiction produced in a language contain elements of this “outlook”.

But the readers may come from different nations and therefore be under the influence of their own worldviews or pictures of the world. There are two specific features of the picture of the world created by the mother tongue that are worth mentioning:

  • It is taken for granted by the native speakers. They may think that everybody sees the world the way they do. (Zaliznyak, 2002)

  • It is more stable in the mind of native speakers than the worldviews acquired while learning foreign languages.

In our opinion, it is these two factors that can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the original ideas expressed in a fiction in a foreign language, as the readers will automatically apply their understanding of reality to the content of the text in a foreign language.

Research Questions

In order to prove (or to disprove) this the author compared the original text of the short story “Das Brot” by Wolfgang Borchert with a translation made by a fifth-year student of German in 2011, which can be found on the internet under http://mustran.ru/2011/work/231

One of the reasons for choosing this particular text for analysis is the fact that the short story centres on one of the key concepts of both Russian and German culture.

Further study of Russian and German articles on the subject and other sources revealed not only that the words “хлеб” and “das Brot” overlap in some of their meanings, but also that the content of the Russian concept “хлеб” is wider and deeper than that of the German concept “das Brot”. (Nin Yui, Sviridova, 2016; Plisov, 2016; Duden, 2000 ; Ozhegov, 1996)

This suggests that Russian readers are more likely to understand W. Borchert’s short story correctly than people from India, for example, who do not have the same idea of bread as we do.

The research was to answer the following questions:

  • Are there any discrepancies between the text of the original and the text of the translation?

  • Are these discrepancies casual or systematic?

  • Can these discrepancies be put down to differences between Russian and German cultures?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study was to demonstrate the discrepancy between the original text of fiction in a foreign language and its translation into another language. Further we wanted to illustrate that this discrepancy can be put down to different understanding of the world by native speakers of different languages (in our case – German and Russian).

Research Methods

The research questions mentioned above suggested qualitative comparative analysis as the only research method that allowed us not only to compare and contrast the two texts, but also to describe the nature of the mistakes and to reveal the transformation the ideas of the original text had undergone in the text of the Russian translation.


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In cases 2,3,4,5 and 9 the translation is undoubtedly wrong. All these mistakes are of different kind and some of them (5) seem to be nothing but careless misprints, but together they lead to a serious misinterpretation of the original text that is set in the 1940-ies and therefore describes a reality that is completely different from our life today. In this case every word adds up to a certain picture, the picture of the reality the author creates in order to convey his message to the reader. If this picture is transmitted into another language incorrectly, the author’s message cannot reach the reader.

Correctness here does not necessarily mean that each and every word of the original text should be translated into the foreign language. So in case 11 the translator repeats the exact wording of the German text in the Russian version. But the original idea is lost in the translation. It is not that “she stepped away from the lamp ” that the author wants to emphasize, but that she escaped from the light, so that he could not see her face and understand that she knew that he was lying.

The story is written in so called “terse” style (in German: der Kahlschlagstil), which means in short, simple sentences, sometimes with repetitions, but without any emotionally coloured words or expressions. The effect produced by this manner of writing is, on the one hand, that of the emotional emptiness of the characters and, on the other hand, that of the distance between them.

The woman seems to have no strength to show emotions, she simply states that it is (1) too quiet and (10) it is cold . But the translator unnecessarily supplies a stronger adverb and in the Russian version it is (1) deafeningly quiet. In case 10 the translator even changes the structure of the sentence, making an emotional exclamation out of it: (10) How cold is it! Not less misleading is the translation in cases 6, 7 and 8. The phrase “Come, darling (7), she called her husband again” in the translation creates a completely wrong impression, as the woman despises him for his lie, which is expressed in the German text with the help of the indefinite pronoun “man”.

It is W. Borchert’s style of writing that conveys the emotions of the characters. The young and inexperienced translator feels these emotions instinctively but, trying to express them in her translation, she falls back on the instruments known to her from her mother tongue.

Since “душа” (the sole) is one of the key concepts of the Russian national picture of the world, the Russian language is more emotional than German. In the Russian language feelings and emotions are expressed lexically, whereas in German or English they can also be (and very often are) expressed grammatically.

That is why the effect of W.Borchert’s Kahlschlagstil is lost in the Russian translation of “Das Brot”. The translator could have conveyed the emotional effect correctly if she had translated the text (in cases 1, 6, 7, 8, 10) closer to the original.


Summing up the results of our research we can state the following:

  • There are several places in the Russian version of the short story that do not express the ideas of the original text.

  • There are several places in the Russian version of the short story that express the ideas of the original text incorrectly.

In many cases the discrepancies between the German original and the Russian translation can be explained by inadequate use of emotionally coloured words and phrases, with the help of which the translator tried to convey the emotional background of the story.

  • At the same time one of the typical features of W. Borchert’s books that gives them their emotional tension – his “Kahlschlagstil” – is lost to the Russian reader completely.

These discrepancies cannot be described as casual; on the contrary, they show that native speakers of different languages use different means to express similar things (in our case - emotions). And it is the means the translators use to express things that can create wrong impressions by the readers.


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30 April 2018

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Sociolinguistics, linguistics, semantics, discourse analysis, translation, interpretation

Cite this article as:

Demyanenko, M. A. (2018). Picture Of The World Of The Mother Tongue And Understanding Of Fiction. In I. V. Denisova (Ed.), Word, Utterance, Text: Cognitive, Pragmatic and Cultural Aspects, vol 39. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 495-502). Future Academy. https://doi.org/10.15405/epsbs.2018.04.02.70