If you’ve ever gotten your eyes stuck on a Star Trek episode with an alien encounter, you’ve probably asked yourself how two completely different species with seemingly differing cultures and behaviours seamlessly find ease of communication and understanding. If you’ve ventured into a few more, perhaps even a whole show, you might hold the answer to this question: the universal translator. A universal translator is a little more than an object, a little less than suspension of disbelief in fiction. The conceptual device gathers enough speech to catch syntax and meaning, and log an unknown language into a ‘translation matrix’ that translates the words on the fly.
Or perhaps, if old school cool is what characterizes you better, you may know of the Babel fish in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
“Temba, his arms wide.”Dathon, Star Trek: TNG, s5e2
Well, sometimes it doesn’t do the job. Sure, it translates words and syntax, but that’s not all that language is. Star Trek: TNG‘s Tamarian species are a billiant example. Words may be translated, but the way a language is constructed also holds culture and tradition and mythology and sound within it. While our friend captain Picard got himself out of a pickle in that episode by deciphering the way in which Tamarians communicate, I can’t help but remember how thankful I am sometimes that I do not know some languages, or that I do not even know of some languages. Sometimes, it’s more of a bother than it is helpful.
Have you ever listened to german rap, or japanese punk, or italian songs, or latin church chants (assuming there’s at least one of those languages you don’t know?) I hold dear a vivid memory of my 8 year old ears, hearing Ozzie’s ‘Looking for Today‘ for the first few dozen times, and hearing (blame me for not being a native english speaker) “lucky popoday” and imagining a round hippo. The words I now clearly understand were then just a collection of sounds, a musical instrument neighbor to the guitar and drums and bass whose language I understood even less. Blissful moments those were, when I could listen and just hear. Young boy, his ears unaccustomed, his mind clear. Now I understand every word, and when I can’t chain every word with another, my head franticly seeks an explanation to the oh-so-glorious passage or speech. So much so that it’s a pain to enjoy poetry.
Hazel loved to hear conversation but he didn’t listen to words—just to the tone of conversation. He asked questions, not to hear the answers but simply to continue the flow.John Steinbeck, Cannery Row ch. 6
Nowadays I put myself in those situations on purpose. I know I don’t understand Italian, although I might have a tiny grasp of it through my little more than tiny grasp of Spanish, yet I play Pufuleti’s tracks over and over again. Young adult, his ears tingling. A few months ago, warmed up on the sweetest of beers, during a jolly hop home with friends, yours truly had the impulse to take the first book I saw on the street. It was Kracht’s 1979, a german novel. A drunken musical session from a guitar ensued, inviting a cello and a male voice owned by – and I say it truly – a Robespierre younger lookalike. To top it all off I had the honor of not being bombarded with tomatoes for audaciously inserting a dramatic reading of the aformentioned book. I had heard enough german to know how it sounds, but far from enough to know what it means, and that was the exact amount this collective hallucination in the realm of musical improvisation needed to continue. Also, it was enough to piss off the old lady upstairs who nearly called the cops on us.
It was a great joy to hear myself do what I’d only consumed until now, a complete detachment from semantic meaning, and a glorious grasp and control of a language’s melody.
The experience is a lot like reading asemic writing.
The language barrier is when two guys speak the same language. No way of understanding eachother anymore.Romain Gary, The Ski Bum, 1965
The Ski Bum introduces us to a curious exploration of relationships. Ever met someone, and their language was out of reach for you, and your language was out of reach for them? What follows usually is that you both mix the few words in other languages you know, and waive your arms around like an excited ten year old boy playing charades, going back and forth and about what you mean to say to the person. You could draw a map with the stuff, it is the stuff of the unknown, it is the freedom from the language barrier, the freedom from instant comprehension, the perverted joy in the lack of resolution.
It’s like a pebble in your shoe, only you’re playing around with it, and your foot dances in all kinds of ways, making you fit for an appointment at the Ministry of Silly Walks.
When you know, you don’t learn, and when you cut your trip short, you cut your experience short.
Do yourself a favor sometimes, and don’t know so much.