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Life involves translation, words hold different meaning depending on perspective

All life is translation.

The most common idea of translation, of course, is taking the meaning of words from one language into a meaning of words in another language. Translate comes from a Latin word that means to “carry across.”

But as we carry those words between languages, some things fall from our hands. Translation always involves loss.

But it can involve gain as well. Whatever is lost can be compensated for by knowledge, insight and especially connections to other human beings. If we give up and say “that’s untranslatable,” we lose the chance to look into other worlds.

Strictly speaking, all communication involves loss and gain. I have an idea, which I put into words. I tell you my words and hope they’ll carry my intention across. You hear the words in a different context, based on your experience.

There are several moments of loss: between what’s “out there” and my perception, between my perception and my words and between my words and the way you hear them.

This is why the Viennese writer Karl Kraus [1874-1936] wrote: “There is no language in which it is harder to communicate than language.” What is the hardest language? The one you are using right now.

We’d better not ignore how hard it is to use this tool. If we take it for granted, assuming it can communicate accurately and completely, we are in trouble. This assumption is the hard-headed fantasy of common sense [see my column of March 23].

Using language — even the same language — is always translation. I look out my window and I write: “I see a bright green yew bush whose boughs are bobbing in the wind.”

My translation of the view out my window has some alliteration [bright, bush, boughs, bobbing] and some interesting rhythmic effects: “bright green yew bush whose boughs.” Maybe this evokes the scene and maybe it doesn’t.

Alliteration is not a feature of the world. It’s an add-on, a work-around. Rhythm does seem to exist “out there” — that bird song, the motion of the boughs. But even rhythm is an interpretation [another word for translation!], probably based on my heartbeat.

If the materials [sounds] of language are so different from the world “out there,” the contents of language [meanings] are even more so. The smarter we get about language — the more we distrust it — the more faith we can have that it can bridge the gap.

At their best, liberal studies train us in this distrust, which is why common sense distrusts liberal studies. Worrying about language may seem like “mere semantics,” but there is nothing “mere” about it. We can’t find out what lies behind semantics without using more semantics.

Our current controversies about words stem from losses in translation. The meanings that “Indian” respectively evokes in some baseball fans and some Native Americans lie across a translation gap.

The question whether “thug” is a new code for the N-word is a translation problem. “Rioter” and “freedom fighter” might be different translations of similar things.

And if someone says “I love you,” we fret whether we are translating it right.

All life is translation.

Congratulations on finishing another academic year and happy translating!

Source: bgnews.com


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