As an English instructor often tasked with teaching rhetoric and argumentation to beginning college students, I spend a lot of time thinking about my relationship with language. Language, to me, is a superpower. But my students don’t believe me. ESL struggles and the under-education afforded by “no child left behind” schools trap them within the need to translate their world, from one language to another, or from vernacular idiolects to academic prose. They tend to see the need to translate as a handicap.
But I see it—and hope to make them see it—as a potential asset.
The old Italian saying goes, traduttore, traditore¹. One can only approximate, not render perfectly, the meaning of something from one language into another, and thus “betrays” the original. But that isn’t any different from language itself, which translates, imperfectly, referent into sign, as Saussure’s famous diagram shows us. We can approach truth only asymptotically. But effective use of language—of translation in one form or another—is a muscle that, when worked out regularly, becomes supple, capable, powerful: a superpower.
Here are three brief meditations on the building of the language muscle, which, gleaned from my own life, all involve translation.
Meditation 1: The Noble Gases
My parents spoke French in front of us when they didn’t want us to understand. Consequently, we learned to pay attention when it was being spoken, for usually something of great significance was being discussed, and something was about to happen that directly concerned us. For instance, sometimes, when our stomachs were sore, my mother would wave a hand in front of her nose and say to my father, “Mauvais gaz.“
This must have been important, since it was only occasionally, and only when we were in a state of discomfort, that the phrase was used. It often portended the application of soothing and sometimes sleep-inducing medicines. Important, weighty, mysterious, the words niggled into my consciousness.
My mother reports, when I was around four years old, passing by my room and hiding, watching me play with my stuffies. The animals had a leader, a lion that my parents had optimistically named Aslan. I renamed him. “Aslan” didn’t mean anything to me yet, and I wanted the lion’s name to mean something. He was a wise and just leader, who was sought out for advice and counsel by the other animals in his peerage. My mother, a psychologist, was watching for my early-stage sense of hierarchy and justice, but she noticed, too, that the animal supplicants were petitioning Moh-Vay-Gahz the lion, sage leader of his animal subjects. Moh-Vay-Gahz spoke in as deep and sonorous a tone as my four-year- old voice could render, and made only the wisest of judgments, presiding with munificence over his stuffed animal realm.
Meditation 2: Creative Mistranslation
My graduate program offered a supplementary degree in translation. For years I was steeped in translation theory and praxis, and it was a watershed experience for me. Translating and workshopping my translations had the unintended consequence of improving my writing in English, most especially the revision process, because I began to unconsciously think of revising as “translating” my work into clearer, prettier English. The mot juste, not just the meaning, became the thing. So effective was this approach at improving my regular writing that to this day I build a bit of translation theory into the composition courses I teach, and watch my students apply these techniques to their revisions and peer reviews.
One strangely fruitful technique is the homophonic or homographic translation, a form of creative mistranslation. Anyone can do it, even if the writers don’t know the original language. They find the words in the target language that match the sounds of the words in the original. Homophonic translations are surreal and rich in surprise. Here is Baudelaire’s “Spleen” in its original French, a language over which I have very little mastery:
Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.
Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.
Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,
Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.²
I experimented a lot with translating this poem, but where it really got interesting was when I let myself go, with no faith to the original meaning of the poem, remaining faithful only to the sounds of the French. Here is my homophonic translation:
Flu-voice, you irritate the country-label entry
A son’s great float earns verses and food: tender, bro!
Opal habitués of the facing cemetery
Sir Mortality lies in a full-bore bromide.
Mount Shot, carousing with a church-tune, litters
The sheets with the sun’s reposing corpse from May gallows;
Lame dunes view poetry and donate booty to the air
A wreck of twists vie for the phantom freeloader.
The bourbon laments, ailing fish food maid,
Accompanied by her false-eyed pen, she duels her roommate
Dependent kin complain of on-sale perfumes,
The fatal heritage of the violet hydroponic
Labors for the valet of the car and this damned pique
Causing sinister delight among the fonts.
No one would call this translation “good,” but homophonic translations—sure-fire writer’s block cures—yield some startling imagery that can often be recycled in other formats and other genres. “Sir Mortality” became a character in a short story. “Opal Habitués,” have become denizens of poems. Many of these images have found their way into my writing. My students love this exercise, too, because it gives them a taste of the often-accidental alchemy that can occur when one writes without needing to make sense.
Meditation 3: Natural Language Processing and Me
When my son was eighteen months we had a Christmas tree (a “Cha-Choo- Chee:” his words). His favorite ornaments (the unbreakable ones at the bottom of the tree that we let him play with), were carved safari animals we bought on our Tanzanian honeymoon. Rough, approximate, they were simple, undetailed shapes. That holiday, he received a deck of alphabet cards with highly abstract images of animals on one side. Our son’s favorite was the “bee-bah” (zebra). After looking at the card once, he toddled to the tree and found the carved zebra, removed it, and placed them side by side. Something in his mind had conflated—correctly—these two unlike signs denoting a referent he’d never experienced. They weren’t the same color, material, or medium. I was delighted and proud, but my son’s father—who owns a Silicon Valley start-up that works with artificial intelligence—was astonished because a computer needs to be introduced to hundreds of thousands of samples to draw meaningful connections between images and text, while our human son’s brain could interpret the image and word with a sample set of one.
Learning—making connections between unlike things—is hard-wired into the human brain, and that brain is more powerful than any computer. Why do we lose the ability to trust in our own experiments, our own creative mistranslations? Why do my students feel so crippled by language? The answer, I think, is that we need not.
We just might need to trick ourselves into a child-like state.
¹ “Translator, traitor”
² Baudelaire, Charles. “Spleen.” Fleur du Mal. Superverts Productions, 2017.
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