Don’t fear a foreign sound in your ear
Quarterly Essay 52: Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World
By Linda Jaivin Black Inc, 106pp, $19.95
LINDA Jaivin begins this Quarterly Essay with an anecdote about George W. Bush. Impatient that his speech at a 2007 G8 summit was being slowed by the process of translation, the then US president interrupted a German interpreter with the question, ‘‘ Everyone speaks English, right?’’
Summit host Angela Merkel promptly replied, ‘‘ Be patient’’, and the interpreter continued. Yet I imagine many people in the English-speaking world would share Bush’s frustration. What is gained by translating his words if the German leader already understands English?
The answer lies in the fact languages embody cultural identity. Languages are the principal lenses through which we experience the world. Changing one can be as startling as changing the strength of your glasses.
On a practical level, having the translator there may simply have given the German Chancellor more time to think before responding. But on a symbolic level its importance can’t be underestimated.
It is a recognition of the value of the cultural identity of the other country. For a superpower often accused of cultural imperialism, this kind of impatience would best be kept hidden.
The case for the importance of translation has been made many times. Unfortunately, where it falls on English ears it often falls on deaf ones.
A strength of Jaivin’s essay is to entertain us with numerous examples of what can be lost and gained in translation and why the topic is so important.
And we’re not just talking about the finer points of literature. The film version of a novel and the way a multinational company uses diverse advertising strategies for the same product in different countries involve issues of translation just as much as an English version of a sonnet by Petrarch.
These days translation has outgrown its status as an illegitimate child of literature to become a way of discussing any exchange between languages and cultures. And appropriately so, given the word derives from the Latin translatio, which means ‘‘ carried across’’. In this comprehensive sense, translation is a process that we all encounter daily, whether we read books or not. Indeed, as Mexican writer Octavio Paz has put it, when we learn to speak we are learning to translate, for any attempt to communicate involves interpreting the non-verbal world in words. Translation is of vital importance to everyone.
You just need to think of the family nicknames we so fondly adopt for everyday objects and loved ones but would be embarrassed to use on the tram, or of teenagers’ fondness for slang on that same tram, to realise that languages embody identity.
So important is language as a marker of difference that even where it seems most impractical you’ll find the need for translation. In the mountains of northern Italy there are valleys where towns on opposing slopes have distinct dialects. You would think the difficulty of life on the land in an alpine climate must have been hard enough without the barrier of language between two towns an hour’s walk from each other. Yet there they are, or at least were until recently.
In Australia there are more than 300 languages spoken. After English the most common are Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Greek, and Vietnamese. We are lucky to have public services such as SBS Radio, which broadcasts in 74 four of these languages every week. Yet, as Jaivin points out, most Australians are monolingual English speakers whose experience of the world is poorer for this fact. They may think that, like Bush, they can communicate pretty much with anyone anywhere, but they underestimate the limited nature of that communication.
As Jaivin argues, ‘‘ learning a second language challenges you to see the world from a different and sometimes uncomfortable perspective — it broadens the mind more surely than travel, and promotes crosscultural empathy and understanding’’.
We all have experience these days of products of mass consumption. We are all wary of the gap between the marketing hype around a signifier and what you actually get for your dollar. As English becomes a global tool serving a greater and greater number of diverse people, is it too in danger of becoming impoverished? It is impossible to predict. But if today in Australia only 12 per cent of Year 12 students are studying a foreign language and the cultures they embody, then the signs are not good.
From left, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and George W. Bush at a G8 summit in 2007