Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Matthew Strawn
English 201
Essay 2
December 2003


I am no J. D. Salinger. I cannot write in a way that evokes strong emotion. I cannot make you, laugh, cry, or yell. Why is this? Am I unable to sympathize with you, the reader? Do I not feel these emotions myself? I am human, so of course I feel emotion, and sympathize with yours. Maybe I am an inarticulate buffoon. As much sense as the buffoon theory makes, I don’t think that is the answer either (at least I hope not). Instead, I believe it has to do with translation.

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Lost in Translation: A Paper

I love to watch foreign films. They tend to illustrate a different perspective on the story telling process than American made films. They are less predictable, visually creative, and quite often, more realistic. The only problem is that I don’t speak any language other than my own. This wouldn’t seem to be a problem with the advent of subtitles, but I have found that nothing is ever translated adequately. I know this because I have a few friends who do speak other languages, and when I watch these films with them it is not uncommon to hear the occasional, "Phbbt, that is so not what he said." This is followed by statements that bring into question everyone involved with the translation process (including careful reading of the closing credits), from the production and distribution companies, to the director and DVD manufacturer. These conversations invariably end with someone vowing to become a "subtitle dude."

These are not isolated incidents. They do not happen only once in a while. They always happen. Why? Is it conspiracy? Should we start a coalition, or a PAC to lobby congress? These ideas, as fun as they sound, would in actuality probably be quite futile. Translation from one language into another is not an exact science. In fact, it has nothing at all to do with science (even counting linguistics, which is still not quite a science). I don’t even think it would classify as an art. However, it would be closer to the truth.

Maybe this is because language is ambiguous. In other words (no pun intended), how any word is interpreted, no matter what language is being spoken is entirely dependent upon the individual. This is because words are nothing more than symbols; symbols that the interpreter takes to refer to something other than the word itself. So, in this way, it could also be said that words are metaphors. So if we apply a little logical reasoning here, (If A=B and B=C, then A=C) by association, all forms of communication, spoken and written language included, are metaphorical. In writing this, I have been tempted to plagiarize an idea from one of my favorite movies of all time Waking Life, by Richard Linklater. Instead, since I think that I will attempt to do the writerly, non-buffoonish, responsible thing, and quote:

Woman: Words are inert; They're just symbols; They're dead. You know? And, so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed; It's unspeakable. —Waking Life

This seems to clarify, much more articulately than I am able, the subjective nature of words, and therefore language. This is why most words in any given language do not translate exactly into that of another, and more importantly, why I never have to worry about losing out on those intense debates with my friends, even if one does become a "subtitle dude."

I began to ponder all of this when I was reading the essay, "The Language of Discretion" by Amy Tan, in which she wrestles with how her native language, Chinese, is translated and interpreted in English. Due to the enormous difference in each language’s nature –Chinese is more referential than English – many inconsistencies and misunderstandings result. What truly struck me was when she writes, "Even more dangerous . . . is the temptation to compare both language and behavior in translation "(295). She was referring to how others interpret generalizations about a societies’ language to its people, but it actually sent my mind in a different, yet related direction. I started to think about how my language and my behavior translate. Does the way in which I communicate affect the manner in which others perceive me? Does the way I modify my vocabulary, depending on my audience, alter this perception? Do I do this intentionally or unintentionally? Furthermore, if all this is true, what about the way in which I talk to myself? Does this internal communication also translate poorly? Of all these questions, (and there are quite a few) I determined that the latter was the most intriguing. I decided to do some self-investigation.

This was not as easy as it would seem. It is no easy task to evaluate oneself. When I tried to pay attention to how I was talking to myself, and where or when this personal discourse changed, my internal dialogue would cease. But when I would reflect back on what I was just thinking—if I could remember it—I noticed something that I hadn’t expected: there were very few words, if any, in my thoughts. I had always assumed that my thought process was solely literary. More specifically, it seemed as if when my mind was working out a problem, a solution, or just plain working, that the thoughts were in the form of words, sentences, and even paragraphs. While this is true to some extent, it seems that, more often than not, I think in images and concepts. This revelation sent me in yet another direction; how do I process information?

Just like trying to eavesdrop on my own internal dialogue, trying to pay attention to the frequency in which I would think conceptually, was painfully complicated. For example, as you are reading this, you cannot attempt to focus on whether or not you are thinking in intangible concepts. At this moment, you are not. You are reading, and therefore the words on the page are simultaneously running through your head, just as they are running through mine as I write them. As a matter of fact, even if you were to stop reading, and attempt to focus on your thought process, you would probably be thinking in words. It’s the same as when someone tells you, "Whatever you do, don’t think about elephants." You can’t help but think about huge, lumbering grey beasts, with big ears and long noses.

So imagine the struggle, the painstaking difficulty of writing about a subject that is contrary to what is occurring in my mind as I write. It’s like walking and chewing gum, or better yet, like breathing in and out simultaneously, only harder. This is then compounded by my ability, or lack thereof, to write in a manner that makes you care about said struggle. So what am I to do? I must surrender, give in to the words, and forego the idea of trying to hold onto the images. So is this what happens when I communicate? Do I begin with images and concepts, ideas of what it is I want to say, and messages I want to convey? Does it begin with a picture? I think it does.

It seems that Amy Tan was not wrong in her thinking. It is difficult to avoid translating both language and behavior together. They both come from the same place. They both begin in the mind, and are translated from images. This may not be exactly what she was talking about, but the idea seems to apply here nonetheless. The concept, and therefore the inherent errors are, in the end, exactly the same.

I am thinking of significant conversations I have had. These have, for the most part, been in the context of personal relationships, romantic or otherwise. During these discussions, there were no specific messages I was trying to convey. They were more like impressions, or ideas. For example, in one of my past relationships we had issues with trust (hence the term "past relationship"). In one of our many "disagreements," as we so fondly termed our fights—positive phrasing is important to a successful relationship—I was attempting to convince my girlfriend of my feelings for her, and that I was not "bored" in the relationship.

To convey an impression of "Love" one can’t simply conjure up a concrete visual image of what that is. I cannot look it up on the Internet, find a picture, print it out and say, "That’s Love. That’s how I feel." Instead, in my head, I have to come up with a group of images, memories, sounds, smells, and sensations that, to me mean, "Love." Next, I need to take all of those things, and attempt to distill out something concrete, that I can clothe in words, and then say to my girlfriend. No matter how I choose to translate, the words I choose will not adequately support the concept. They cannot stand for the ideas they are meant to describe. Something will be lost. And in the aforementioned relationship, something was.

I will never be a Great Writer. My name will never be a household word. I will not be listed as one of the great 20th or 21st century poets, novelists, philosophers, or artists. I do not believe I have a gift for the written, much less the spoken word. I may be able to write a line or two that is amusing or thoughtful, but never will I write something that is awe inspiring or sublime. This does not bother me. These are things I have never aspired to, nor even imagined doing. It seems I am missing something. I now believe I know what that thing is. It is not something people are born with. It is a simple ability. The ability to translate.

I had a conversation about this idea with a friend of mine. She doesn’t seem to agree that it’s as simple as skillful, more accurate, translation. To her, it seems as though her thought process is literary, not a conversionary—image to language—process. I think I know why this is. She is one of those people whose skill in translating their ideas, concepts, and images, into written or spoken language has been honed to such an art that it has become unconscious. Like any athlete, who through a lifetime of repetition and practice, no longer thinks about the task they are performing. The athlete’s body now acts on autopilot; their limbs and muscles know exactly how to move with a mechanized precision. So, like great athletes, my friend and others like her are gold-medal caliber cognitive translators, and are no longer aware of the process. Like the great writers, poets, philosophers, and artists, they have the ability to take their mental images and communicate them with such effective precision, that little information is lost.

I am that inadequately translated foreign film, my sometimes poorly chosen words and phrases—the subtitles, and the images generated by my mind—my native language. Unlike those with greater skill and motivation, I am forever lost in translation.


Works Cited

Tan, Amy. "The Language of Discretion." Reflections on Language. Ed. Stuart Hirschberg, Terry Hirschberg. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 1999. 291-298.

Waking Life. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Wiley Wiggins, Richard Linklater, and Bill Wise. Fox Searchlight. 2001.


Copyright 2003
Matthew Strawn


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA