Understanding other people isn’t easy. That’s basically one of those universal truths that are hard to acknowledge, and easy to just push aside and forget. It’s also at the core of most of humanity’s largest problems, if you’re honest about it.
But before I turn this into a discussion so broad and complex that we’ll never find a satisfying solution, I’ll dial it down.
We won’t have to find a solution today.
Instead, I’ll offer some theory that has helped me understand the nature of this problem a bit better.
In his work After Babel, Aspects of Language and Translation, written in 1975, George Steiner discusses the complications that come with communication. And more specifically, those that come with language. He claims that whenever we communicate with others, there’s a distance that needs to be bridged in order to understand what the other is saying. Whatever is communicated to us, we need to interpret first.
But that’s a bit vague, isn’t it? ‘The process of interpretation’ is an abstract one; can’t we simplify it?
Well. Glad you asked.
Or well, I asked myself, since this blog hasn’t really been an interactive medium so far.
But I’ll illuminate you anyway.
Steiner sees the process of interpretation like this: the communicator sends out a message, which needs to be processed by the receiver in order to understand it. He calls this interpretative transfer. It can easily be compared to what happens during the translation of different languages.
Steiner even describes this process with the terms ‘coding’ and ‘de-coding’, comparing it to the mechanical way computers use information.
The message needs to literally be transformed into a form of communication the receiver understands. Transform the communicated language into their own language. (That is, assuming that language is a transparent medium, which it’s not. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
However, “exactly the same model -and this is what is rarely stressed- is operative within a single language”, Steiner says. So even without a recognizable linguistic barrier like a different language, interpretative transfer still happens in each attempt at communication.
That might sound a bit tiring, but it’s actually something we already subconsciously deal with every day.
We’re just not aware of it.
Human communication equals translation
Once we see our process of interpretation as one of translation, it’s much easier to understand why it can be difficult to understand others.
After all, the messages we try to translate daily are usually not clearly identifiable.
What I mean by this is, it’s much more difficult to translate French when you’re not aware that it’s French. Similarly, there’s no clear outline or grammar to the abstract intentions of the sender, due to their subjectivity.
It is very understandable why it is so difficult to be understood properly, be it face-to-face communication or the written word. Communication can be a source of frustration, both in our attempts to translate abstract thought into communicable language and in trying to ‘get’ what others communicate.
We’re confronted with how fragile we are when we’re trying to understand the world around us.
Is there a grammar, or a handbook, that will help us understand? Who will help us translate the world around us, so that we might fit in?
Steiner points to time and repertoire as crucially influential on any message, both when it’s created and when it is interpreted. Context and education are what make up our individual ‘lexicon’.
Discourse, societal norms and zeitgeist influence our worldviews, and our interpretation of it.
Translation, then, is like ‘moulding’ any kind of message into a system we know, so that its underlying meaning can be interpreted. We can call it internal translation, since this form of translation is less of a mechanical one between two languages, but rather between the message and our subjective understanding of it.
Translation within the same language.
The invasive nature of translation
We really shouldn’t underestimate the aggressive nature of translation.
This might sound a bit strange, but when you think about it, translation can be a drastic act. It is an act of appropriation, in which the interpreter transforms a message into something else. Something they understand, something they believe the original message signifies.
In a cookie-cutter way, by trying to fit a message into another language something always gets lost. It could be argued that this is a necessary sacrifice, but just like when we’re translating into French, nuance (sometimes essential nuance) is easily lost in this process.
While mistranslating French could easily be the result of not knowing a lot of French, errors in the process of internal translation are much more difficult to recognize.
Due to its subjective nature and the non-transparent medium of language it’s a wonder we manage to agree on anything, honestly.
Or do we only think we do?
Keep Calm and translate internally
After all that, I have to admit that realizing how much of our interpretation is actually an act of translation doesn’t really change much.
It’s not going to dramatically impact the way you experience your everyday life. It might, however, help you appreciate how communication works, to some extent.
It might also help you come to terms with the experience of not being understood, or not understanding, since you have a possible explanation for it now.
What I hope it will do is make you aware of how interpretation is not a passive, but an active process.
The term interpretative transfer emphasizes on the constant de-coding your brain is doing during your every encounter with the world around you.
The longer you think about it, the more it explains.
So how was that, too heavy? Too long? Not long enough? Fun enough? Do let me know!
I intend to make some more of these in the future, and I hope they’re not too dense to get through, since I’d like to make these ideas more widely available.
George Steiner, “Understanding as Translation”, in: ibid., After Babel, Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford, 1975.
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