Listening with new ears
Perhaps it’s my academic background, looking to analyze seemingly normal situations to find the hidden meaning, but I was struck by a cartoon episode I saw the other day involving a bilingual unicorn/dog couple and their friends. Lady Rainicorn, the Korean-speaking unicorn on Adventure Time, was conversing with her doggie husband, Jake, when Jake realized that he was the only one who understood her. He divided his time between her and his friends, but they did not all hang out together. Jake realized that it would be better if his friends could understand Lady Rainicorn’s language, so he found a ‘universal translator’ that enabled her words to be translated into English. The only problem was, instead of hearing her speech in her own high, sweet girl voice, the collar can only translate her words into three voices called ‘nightmare’, ‘old man’, or ‘nerdy alien’, with the old man setting being the only one that everyone could understand. See a 90-second clip of this episode here. While Jake’s friend was glad to understand the unicorn now, Jake is unsettled because her translated voice doesn’t really represent who she is.
More than words
Translation programs have been around for a long time, and are becoming more sophisticated as technology improves, much to the dismay of language teachers! However, as Jake notes, there are certain aspects of conversation that do not translate well or do not accurately represent what is being said. It may be that a single word in one language has many specific variations in another language, such as the oft-quoted theory that Inuit groups have dozens of words for ‘snow.’ Similarly, in Mandarin Chinese, you cannot speak of family as ‘sister’ or ‘uncle’ without specifying if the sister is older or younger, or the uncle is from the mother’s or father’s side, by marriage or by birth. These language complexities give a lot of insight into the culture of a particular group and without a good understanding of the cultural context, we may miss out on a lot of meaning through simple ‘translation.’ In fact, a recent study shows that language is related to our cultural behaviors: we may be more inclined to save money or find our way in unfamiliar places based on what language we speak.
When thinking about learning a new language, consider the pros and cons of a simple translation tool–are you in a desperate situation that needs quick communication to resolve a problem? Then break out Google Translate and see if it helps. But if you’re planning on traveling to learn about a culture or getting to know a new international neighbor, take the time to learn about the language and its insights into culture. You’ll be speaking in your own voice and connecting on a deeper level with your conversation partner!