Some Thoughts on Language and Consciousness

Language is a tool for communication (though it often backfires and un-tools its toolhood). It is always changing and moving, and as such, it carries references to histories of change and movement. It is a living recorder that reflects the remains, traces, and ruins of cultures in contact, cultures that have journeyed. 

Language is double-edged, double-voiced, and the meanings it carries often double and multiply. It can unite people/separate people; can lead to understanding/misunderstanding (some linguists have said that 70% of our communication is misunderstood!); create war/peace; it can entrap/open possibilities; it can lock us into a mode of seeing/allow for new ways of seeing; it can empower/be a tool of oppression. 

Some say that human language pre-conditions the way we view the world. That it creates a framework for people to understand the world; a structure of seeing and hearing and experiencing the world that determines the way we observe. Others say that language pre-disposes us to a whole range and structure of feeling that differs between groups. 

Language gives new life to ideas. It is our experience of the world encoded in systems of grammar and phonetics. The great Caribbean writer and philosopher Wilson Harris states that “The concept of language is one which continuously transforms inner and outer formal categories of experience, earlier and representative modes of speech itself… The peculiar reality of language provides a medium to see in consciousness… and to hear with consciousness.” (From “Tradition, the Writer, and Society”) It determines and “transforms” what we experience and the categories through which we perceive — both internal categories that we create for ourselves and external categories that are passed down through philosophy, religion, and the concepts that language carries in a “mere” word. Through language we can “see” in/into consciousness; both our own and a collective consciousness. We can “hear” and experience the world through language, and perhaps only through language. Language allows us to “hear” and “see” the workings of the self, our cultures, our histories, and the relationship between them. 

Language opens windows into/onto history and the forces and influences that have shaped our cultures. It is inseparable from our structures of power, our hierarchies, the practice and “location” of our cultures [see Bhabha], our values and the ideas that have impacted our worlds. To understand the way our cultures and consciousness shifts, we have to look at the ways in which our languages move. And that movement can also sharpen our understanding of the past: the meeting and re-meeting spaces of cultures in contact is iconified by our languages. Language, then, can refer to a space and time of contact. Its carries that history with it.

Encoded in language is our appreciation of time and the ways in which we perceive time. It codifies the ways we measure time (preterite, imperfect, pluperfect, historical present, future)  and as such, the ways in which we remember. Language provides a structure and life to/of memory. Likewise, the structure and life of memory is linked to the ways that our language systems categorize time and allow time to have a life and meaning of its own. In other words, the ways in which we perceive memory and allow it to transform our present and future is intricately connected to the ways in which language understands and transmits temporality. 

Language always transforms and creates new meanings. It is a generative code that spawns new codes. It carries ideas from ancient history to unimagined futures. 

Language is the consciousness of of our consciousness, and the consciousness of our cultures and societies.

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)


Language in a “Post”-colonial Context

Writers often struggle, debate, toil within, and explore the links between language and the ways in which it determines our perceptions and establishes a structure for seeing, hearing, and living. In a Postcolonial context in which one or more languages have been imposed, others oppressed or systematically destroyed, others so effectively stamped out via policy and force that the “native” speakers no longer use it, writers often face a common situation: “to give names to one’s experience… to describe a nature you have no words for, a reality outside of the logical encoded in your language” (139 “The Empire Writes Back”)   

In that situation, the writer develops a new strategy of naming experience and of describing that bends the structure and quality of the imposed language. Nature must somehow twist the imposed language, break it apart, and force it into the processes of the land and sea. To describe a reality not encoded in the imposed language, one must refashion that language, subvert the code, posit a new one that carries the reality that the writer knows or intuits.     

That ability to re-shape language, to force it into the process of a new nature, a new relationship to land and sea gets deep into an intrinsic property of language: that it can always generate new meanings, that it can always transmit new ideas and concepts, that it is in constant flux.  

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)

Bhaktin and Language’s Tyranny

Bhaktin wrote that “only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language.” 

But does consciousness have a language? Are all thoughts, experiences, perceptions, emotions encoded in language? 

Some say that language pre-determines the ways in which we perceive the world. The ways that language encodes time and provides conscious and unconscious ways of categorizing experience and knowledge, according to that hypothesis, shapes our lives and our cultures. Following that idea, polyglossia would grants us access to multiple systems of encoded experience, thought, and perception; we need to refer to some examples to see if the hypothesis works. 

If English does not distinguish a completed past activity from an ongoing past activity (the difference between preterite and imperfect tenses in languages like Spanish and Portuguese) does it mean that monolingual English speakers do not value that distinction? Does it mean that monolingual English speakers do not comprehend the difference between an ongoing past action and a completed past activity? Does it mean that monolingual (if this ever existed I am not sure) English-speaking cultures are forward-thinking, future-oriented, uninterested in categorizing the past into different spheres of influence? Are these alleged monolingual cultures insensitive to the transformative roles of history?

It seems dubious to jump to these conclusions.

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)

On Violent Translations

The “violence of translation” has been a key concept floating around national literature departments and it seems to be a way of overlooking the process of translation and its central role in the  construction of the very national literatures that professors profess. 

Statements regarding translation and it’s problematics come out in many ways, often with stern looks and visible scholarly agitation with the translator (i.e. furrowed brow, the look on one’s face that some kind of intellectual doom is near, finger resting upon forehead, etc.): “Yes, the erasure of dialect, is violent in this text. The translator is engaging in an act of violence.” (Of course the use of the word “dialect” is often equally “violent” — “language” is a dialect with an army after all — but that can be the subject of another piece).    

What is at stake here is the convenient excuse for sticking to one’s own language, culture, geographical location: ‘I can’t teach in translation because it’s always an act of violence.’ or ‘It’s never the same text’. ‘It is a re-write, and a violent one.’

But let’s face it: only reading in English (or whatever dominant language), only teaching books originally written in English — even if under the pretense that going beyond entails violence —  is perhaps a greater violence. It is to isolate and prevent students (and the self) from exploring, from going outside of the “myth of their own language” (Bhaktin), outside of the assumptions that their nation or group has constructed for the “outside” world. It stifles interest in travel, in moving beyond norms; it prevents questioning oneself, and seeing oneself or one’s nation as part of a greater picture.    

That is not to say that translating does not entail violence. Translators have long been linked to colonial expansion, massacre, exploitation, and destruction. And the texts they produce are always problematic because it is impossible to duplicate meaning between languages, to transfer the full range of emotive, linguistic/kernel/core meaning, cultural meaning, metaphor, double-entendre, phonetic meaning from language one into language two. Translators manipulate texts, choose which meanings they want or need to transfer. The effects can be destructive (the translation of Jorge Amado tells the English-reading audience that Brazilians are a bunch of oversexed, superstitious people who live in the middle of nowhere) or positive (suddenly the English-reading audience realizes that what they thought was the height of Modernism had been done 2,000 years ago in a small fishing community). What I am getting at is that translation may be violent, but it is not an excuse to not work with translated texts, and to study the process of translation itself. 

Further, violence is everywhere. Not only does all representation and re-representation run the risk of violence (especially in the world of inequality in which we live), life too is violent. We are violent by nature, and our societies, arts, and thought processes reflect that. Turn on PBS at 7pm: lion stalks gazelle, separates it from the heard, and has his feast; baboons beat each other senseless to prove that they have enough energy stamina and “machoness” to be a good mate; some female species even eat their male mates after they engage in the reproductive process (that is, unless the male proves he is good enough or strong enough to be of some use) 

Like our animal counterparts, we are violent. Our daily life is violent. That doesn’t stop us from wearing tee-shirts made in sweat shops, from driving on busses fueled with gas from illegally invaded countries where innocent people are dying every day. I’m not trying to say that violence is acceptable or that we should just accept it without a fight. I’m saying that the fight against violence will surely entail violence, and that avoiding texts in translation under the pretense that they are “violent” is to not look at violence objectively. Further, if we believe the idea that humans are less likely to go to war with a group whose language, culture, and arts are known, the “violent” translation work with texts may lead to a less violent world. 

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)

Theory and Practice of Translation: Which “Gap” is Bridged?

Apparently universities all over the U.S. are starting to offer translation and interpretation services without providing any training to students on the science, art, craft (or whatever else you decide to call it) of translation. Nor is there an interest in training. At a recent conference on the ethics of translation at UMass-Amherst, participants pointed out that the gap between theory and practice is also on the rise on a global scale, where translators (if trained at all) are often certified after a non-intensive 6-week course that covers basic techniques such as “mapping” or consistency in translating the same word. It is of interest to note that many of these instant professional translators are sent to war zones, the U.N., to courts, to places where accuracy is key, and ethics are perhaps even more key. 

Why are ethics key? Translators are always caught between two or more camps and they must be prepared to negotiate between their personal views, what is expected of them via a contract/commission, and they need to realize that they are always asked to do the impossible: to find equivalent words between two languages, so that text one means the same thing as text 2 as is received by the audience in the same way. Basically, the untrained translator is doomed to fail, and in that failure he/she may start doing things without a plan, things that can backfire and have “real” consequences for people and entire groups of people.      

Do we need theory?

The logic seems intact: better trained translators will make better informed translations, and the world will be a safer place to live in. But there are holes that need to be addressed and responded to: we need to openly look a the other side to create a recorded dialogue on the topic. 

The first hole appears in relation to theory. College-student translators and professors of translation, folks enrolled in one of the few translation studies programs in the U.S. or somehow connected to those programs, seem to defend theory and theorizing translation. The idea is that you can’t be a good translator if you don’t explore the theory, the position of the translator, the roles that the translator has played in shaping literary and cultural systems, in fashioning change. Likewise, you can’t be a good translator if you don’t reflect on the ethics of translation; if you don’t constantly remind yourself that you might be doing violence to a text or a language or a culture. Simply stated, you ned to know the implications of your translation, your location, and your position in order to put out “ethical”, good translations. 

But my first question is, can we recognize this and then move on? And more importantly, is insisting upon theory/theorizing our discipline making translation an exclusive practice? Is saying that people should equip themselves with theory also saying, “you really need to go to school and ‘get white/Western’ in order to do this”? Is demanding a role for theory filtering out the people who really should be translating — those from the so-called “margins” whose lived experiences have trained them at negotiating between camps far better than any university could do — those who have a “real” command over multiple languages and the ways those languages are used on a daily basis?   

Bridging the gap between theory and practice sounds like a good project, but is there an edge of classism, racism, and arrogance in that call? 

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)

On Faithfully Unfaithful Translations

How many times do I have to hear professors say, “yeah, there are some good translations out there.” Or, “sure, that is a good translation” without any indication that they know why or think they might know why it’s a good translation, beyond the realm of “it captures the meaning of the original language” or it’s “faithful.”

The faithful vs. unfaithful debate regarding translation is over. There is not such thing as a faithful translation (at least not in terms of linguistic “accuracy” as has been the criteria  pre-Venuti, pre-Benjamin, ad pre-all the others who thought outside the box). Moving from language 1 into language 2, we see that meaning always shifts, that new meanings arise, target languages and literary systems are altered, ideas and preconceptions are always shattered, violence occurs, and more. A “good” translation has to do with the translator’s plan. It has to do with the reading of the source text and the translator’s knowledge of the target language and culture — how to negotiate those two worlds. A “good” translation also has to do with the individual reader’s conception of what should be transfered; the meaning that the reader of the source text believes should be transfered from language 1 into language 2 (is it the core meaning, kernel meaning, is it emotive meaning, is it the transfer of “difference”?). We all have a different reading of a text, a different way of interpreting it. A translator is another reader, but his/her interpretation is forced to crystalize (or move closer to a static state) when he/she represents it in a new language. A “good” translation also has as much to do with the target language reader’s interpretation: does the reader perceive that the target language reads awkwardly, is that estrangement actually part of the translator’s plan — to bend the new language and manipulate it so that the source text can carve open a new space?     

The “good” vs. “not good” translation is an old debate just like the debate between good and bad literature. We can’t objectively determine what is a good translation, just like we can’t objectively determine what is a good poem. But at least professors, academics, critics, and readers have developed a language with which they attempt to describe “what a good poem is” and why. Those descriptions of “good poetry” go beyond, ‘it’s good because it meant something.’ When assessing a “good poem” there is discussion on form, content, rhyme, intertextuality, musicality, image, etc. The point is, “good” or “not good”, “faithful” or “unfaithful” seems to be the limit for discussions on translation even after 30 years of ground-breaking concepts that have changed the ways in which we understand language, culture, the process of translation, and the function of translated texts. It’s time to add to the vocabulary. 

The moral: translation and translated texts have played fundamental roles in the shaping of national literatures, social movements, philosophies, ways of understanding the world. Translation and translated texts have introduced new genres, new tropes, new conceptualizations of language. They say the process involves some of the most advanced thought processes known to mankind. The translation of a single word (“fire”/”fired”/”refrain”) could lead to all out war or peace, and in the context of nuclear politics, we all know the implications (see Gentzler and Tymoczko’s “The Power of Translation”). It is time to get with the times and develop a way to talk about the phenomenon that is translation. 

–Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @  (2008)