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Translation and the Meaning of Words, November 8, 1998 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: November 8, 1998
"Translation and the Meaning of Words" [permalink]
    keywords: foreign language, translation, international affairs, linguistics
    soapbox #: 161
    written: November 8, 1998
    words: 2513

"Translation and the Meaning of Words", an Essay

I don't agree with what Mr. Allan Bloom says about the current state of higher education, but I do respect his courage to say what he said. Bloom wrote Closing of the American Mind, a book which argued that (amongst many other things, in deeper contexts) the university curriculum has become tunnel-minded as electives and liberal arts requirements have been stripped out of technical degrees and out of all degrees in general, as they have been deemed unimportant and time-consuming.

One of the areas of education that has been crippled most is foreign language. It used to be that those who were able to go to school would learn Greek and Latin, the classic cornerstones of every youth's education. But now that is no more. I was lucky enough to have Latin as an option as a foreign language in high school, and while Latin seems to be gaining interest from students, the majority of students, particularly liberal arts students, don't have much familiarity with language.

I am a Latin major, learning Greek in the second half of my undergraduate stay at the University of Texas at Austin. Jesus, how many fucking times have I said that through the years? I'm turning into a frigging parrot, repeating everything, uh, I say. I come from a family very comfortable with languages, my mom being a linguist. My girlfriend is Swedish, which means she actually got foreign language classes (!), and she's fluent in several languages, including English. She corrects MY English, dammit!! Hmph, well I can still speak in if..then loops.

One of my closest friends is Polish, so I used to hear him speak it to his family. Another is Algerian, and he speaks French. My roommate is Chinese, so he speaks Mandarin to his parents. In short, I've grown up exposed to many different languages and cultures. This sort of exposure was crucial for me, and it was the best thing I could've gotten short of actually visiting other parts of the world for significant periods of time so I could pick up the languages a bit.

Because technical degrees are the way to go, and the way to make money, and academics and languages are not, I'm certainly having to frequently defend language degrees, and in some respects, liberal arts as a whole.

Learning foreign languages is viewed as a waste of time, here in the good ol' U.S. of A. I suppose it's not wholly unfounded, what with American English being the world standard for communication, particularly in the business world. The closest Americans get to using foreign languages is ordering a fuh-cccheeeee-tuh and watching the Addams Family. Greek and Latin certainly aren't the backbones of early education anymore, and children aren't taught languages at all in the most important stage of life for language acquisition, the age around five or six years old. When most American students get their first crack at languages, they're in sixth or seventh grade. That means they're about thirteen years old or so. Meanwhile, children in other countries are taught almost as soon as they start grade school, learning several languages at once (!!). English is usually one of the first languages taught.

I mean, really, what else do you teach a damn kid at that age? I think in the U.S., we do something stupid like give the kids wooden blocks with cornered edges so they don't hurt themselves. Or we make them play Musical Chairs with ten chairs for five children, so none of them ever lose. You know. We're big on "emotional development" here in the U.S. Did I tell you some crazy ex-husband shotgunned his ex-wife and two other people outside a house just a few streets away this morning? Yeah. We have the most well-adjusted kooks in the world here, let me tell you!

Not only is language just absorbed like a sponge at a young age, it also gives the children something to find order in, and to find stimulation and intellectual growth in. Instead of pointless book exercises, these kids could be tapping themselves into human communication, picking up the basic structures of human thought through language.

I'm going into a technical career, I'm sure, but I don't regret my Latin degree one bit. In fact, I feel kind of embarrassed because I don't know MORE about language. My girlfriend speaks with my parents about French words and pronunciations, and I sit there and muse upon the value my stomach will find in that cookie bag sitting there. Well, I think I'll be taking French next year. Enough of this! You know, if I knew French, I could've probably helped those two French women who were having problems figuring out what to do when they got to the airport in London. Or if I knew Swedish, I could've read the newspaper when I stayed with Anna, and talked to her mom more. No one's more a fish out of water than an American in any other fucking country besides the U.S.A., let me tell you. It's embarrassing how narrow-minded we've become.

Of course, I'd love to learn German, and Swedish, and I know I've said this too many times before. I'm actually listening to Rammstein as I write this (it's 4:42AM now), a German heavy rock group that sings in German. I wish I understood it immediately, without looking words and lyrics up.

My point. Okay. I have translated the whole damn Aeneid just months or years before I knew what I was really doing with it. I've read a lot of Caesar, Juvenal, Horace, Pliny, Suetonius, Catullus, and Virgil, and some of Cicero, Ovid, Martial, and Livy. Medieval Latin is a trip. Didn't even get to touch Tacitus, Lucretius, or the lesser-known folks. I'm just starting Greek, so I've gotten to read excerpts out of the Bible and such. Fun stuff.

Why am I telling you this? The problem is that I've only scratched the surface of languages. I would love to know German and French, since many important pieces of literature have been written originally in those languages, and I would love to know an Eastern language. I would love to know Swedish so I can say sweet things to Anna, and talk to her parents in the language they're most comfortable with. I would love to be able to understand the quotes and references and random snippets of language I pick up every day that are in other languages. I would love to have thousands (millions?) more books to read in their original languages. I'm envious of those who can do that. Poke poke, Anna.

As an aside, I think Eastern language, philosophy, religion, etc. need to be opened up to Americans. Most of us have no concept of how different Asians are from Americans. The only way I've learned about Asia is from the Asian friends I have, and the fact that I'm almost half-Asian. Because Asian culture is so dramatically different from American culture, I think having knowledge of it would smash down some of the stupid misconceptions students have about the world. Particularly the one about Christianity being the only major religion in the world. We Americans are pretty well drilled with Greek mythology and Roman names, but when it comes to Eastern culture, we know nothing. Except that Bruce Li is a god and rice is better gooey, but clumpy.

Getting back to translating, I have learned how important it is to read or hear something in its original language. When you read a translation of something, you lose so much information and perspective, and you are subject to the agenda of the translator. Even the best of translators will translate text based on their own interpretation of it, and, unless they are extremely dedicated and educated in the language, they will leave out many possibilities for ambiguity, oftentimes what the original author intended to be there.

What you read in English translation is half what was originally there, at least. Each language, although it shares many human tendencies with other languages, has its own approach, its own style, its own emphasis. If you don't understand how that language operates, how it uses language to express opinions and emotions, you will automatically see it from the wrong perspective. You won't understand quite what the author wants to express, and you will miss out on the devices he employs. Some languages use grammatical formations and certain tenses to show a very specific point of reference or attitude which English does not really have. Some languages use verbs to convey the action, while some use nouns. It is a completely different mindset, which can actually say a lot about the religion, culture, and customs of that body of people..

That's a brief explanation, but it serves the purpose of this 'Box well.

Sure, English is the standard, and it will likely remain the standard, and perhaps become the predominant language for everyone, what with the Internet requiring one language for the true dissemination of information and whatnot, and with international love relationships and higher literacy.

But one of the keys to understanding people is through their language. If you learn their language, and you become fluent in it, you become in tune with the ways they use time, the way they tell you how they're feeling, how they think. In this way, simply learning the grammar and vocabulary of a language is not enough -- you must learn or be taught how it is that native speakers of this language use it, and what advantages it has over other languages.

In this way, you also learn more about your OWN language. You discover what makes your language unique and what it lacks that other languages have. English speakers learn where a lot of words they use are derived from, so they are able to more fully appreciate a word when they decide to use it. If you learn a language at an early age, it is less of a conscious process -- you know how to speak it, but you can't identify the structures you're using, like indirect statements or participles or whatever. When you study another language, you learn what the formations are called and you find them in your own language. Technically, your skills in English would improve profoundly through learning another language.

Language IS, after all, human communication. The more effectively we communicate, the more we benefit from it, and the closer we feel to other humans. In a time when cultures are being forced together and are mixing daily, it is important that we understand where each other comes from. I'm not here to preach the whole outreach shit to you, I'm just saying that trying to talk to someone who doesn't speak your language very well is like trying to talk to a deaf man. He may be able to understand you in some ways (lip reading), but you want to connect verbally with him, and he can't hear you.

The bottom line is that I think America is doing its future generations a huge disservice by phasing languages out of schools. I just wanted to drop some thoughts on languages, and not dissect and compare the various arguments and come to a formal conclusion. When did I ever do a good job of thoroughly covering an issue, anyways? So American children are growing up, while children all over the world are finding it easier to reach them, and these American kids do not understand other cultures very well and therefore expect them to react in the same way to things. This will inevitably lead to confusion and offended people, no? Learning languages teaches you about what it is to be human, and how humans have lived this long, and how they've communicated all this time. It connects every single race and culture of human being to each other, giving humans a solidarity that most Americans rarely see. We live on an island, folks, and we hardly know anything about the rest of the world.

What American schools have done is pull liberal arts courses and language courses out of high schools and universities so that students can take more business and science classes to prepare them for their trades. Ironically, the science students could have benefitted from learning Greek (for general science) and Latin (for biology and such) so they could talk to foreign scientists. The business students, who are supposed to have some sort of grasp on international business, could have benefitted from learning a bit about the big languages like Japan and France.

I guess it's not surprising. The departments at universities have talked less and less to each other over the years, so there's very little cooperation going on between different fields to prepare the students best for the big world out there. Those physics people want to speak their own language, and they don't really want to try to branch out with the other departments, who also speak their own languages. We're all learning how to not communicate with each other, aren't we?

That is A Very Bad Thing for the future. We're losing touch with not just our future business associates and friends, but also with our past. Maybe I'm just exaggerating here, but I think the potential for long-term problems is worth the concern. And considering how fucking useless a lot of college courses and high school requirements are, language education wouldn't be a bad thing at all to add. Come on, parents, you know you'd be proud of your kids if they could read French to you. It's not all they learn, but hey, when dealing with people who are bored with language, it's best to go with the Got Milk? approach. Milk makes you buff and stacked, and it gets you laid! Now who DOESN'T want that?

Can you imagine how much more varied and enriching the pot full of ideas would be if more people could understand each other? This is the Age of Information, and yet many of the greatest ideas and philosophies of our time are still not available for everyone in the world to read, discuss, and rebut. Ideas are locked away in the encrypted files of their original tongues, despite valiant attempts to translate them to other languages. It is becoming more accepted and supported that information should be free, but we are being hypocrites by making the problem, hearing geniuses speak mere babble, worse. We mock the importance of language education and we teach it only in limited quantities to people who are either too old to learn a language properly, or too occupied making the most money they can before they die a pitiful death.

Age of Information indeed.


 
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