The Great Linguistic Dance

by Ben Griffiths

The first thing that pops into your head when you think of ‘translation’ is probably the act of rendering a text from one language into another, a process seemingly so simple yet often almost unfathomably complicated. Some say it is in reality impossible to make a completely ‘accurate’ translation, since languages are so loaded with untranslatable terms, nuances and cultural baggage.

But translation isn’t restricted to converting one language to another. We all translate every time we open our mouths and engage in the linguistic dance that is speaking. We translate our moods, our ideas, our opinions and our dreams, transforming them from the random thoughts in our minds into the structured system of sounds we call speech. We try to make ourselves intelligible to our listeners, who, having no access to the ‘source text’, or our thoughts, rely on us to mediate by means of one supposedly sophisticated device, that is, language. But in truth, language is so easily manipulated by tone and context, sometimes accompanied by its close ally gestures, and often insufficient in expressing what we feel in the depths of our minds.

“Everyone in the world participates in this great performance”

But we do not dance alone. Our interlocutors are usually willing to accompany us into a sparkling fusion of two or more colliding consciousnesses, each attempting to understand a little better the source text buried deep within the other. And sometimes we feel that, though it may take weeks, months or even years of searching, we finally discover that elusive jewel that is the essential or true self of another human being.

Everyone in the world participates in this great performance, the results of which determine the formation of all friendships, relationships, alliances and agreements. But if the participants do not dance to the same rhythm, if the translation is inaccurate or deliberately sabotaged, the reaction between these colliding consciousnesses can become volatile.

“The translation process becomes out of sync, and permanent estrangement can result”

The harmony of the linguistic dance can be broken, and disagreements, conflict, and even war can arise as a consequence. The difference is that no further interest is taken in trying to locate and understand the source text, the deepest foundations of a person’s, and, by extension, a group’s existence, because it is too much effort or because the quest is considered fruitless or pointless. The translation process becomes out of sync, and permanent estrangement can result.

Since our involvement in the great linguistic dance is compulsory, we might as well attempt to do it properly, even though we may never attain our Holy Grail-like reward of full comprehension of another’s source text. Let’s be patient with those who do not speak the same first language as ourselves; the essentiality of double translation, from thoughts to first language, then from first language to foreign language, is an extra obstacle but not an impossible one to overcome if the consciousness of the ‘Other’ is willing to wait a little longer for the linguistic dance to begin, for the fusion reaction to occur, and for mutual understanding to develop.

Whilst the gem we are searching for is always priceless, discovering one embedded in the soils of another culture or way of life often shimmers with an unusual brilliance, and its radiance can often banish even the darkest intentions which can well up in the human psyche when the translation process is inadequate, or when apathy attempts to impede our efforts to undertake it effectively.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford, written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff. New issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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