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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Lost in translation

(Warning: One of my long "trying to be profound" posts ahead.)

I like to think I have a good command of the English language. I’m a communicator who spends a lot of time searching for the best way to communicate ideas, information, instructions, etc. I know a lot of words. And yet, there is so much I don’t understand.

Within the English language (and I suppose within any language), there are a lot of sub-languages – languages that are familiar and comfortable to those who speak them but are entirely foreign to everyone else. On the way home from work yesterday, I saw a woman with an interesting hair-do – short spiky dreadlocks - and I wondered if there was a word for that. It occurred to me that she probably had the language to define her hair-do. Or if she didn’t, at least her hairdresser did. I, with my mostly-straight blonde Caucasian hair, don’t have a reason to communicate in that language.

But there are also a lot of languages that I understand that neither that woman nor her hairdresser would. I’ve had to use a lot of different languages in my work life. Here’s a little sampling of statements that mean something to me, but probably sound like Yiddish to you:

Veterans Affairs: “Did you PA that BPA document to the VAC file? The AC wants the file to send it to the VAB. ”
Agriculture: “Next week, representatives from the CD will be meeting with someone from KAP and NFU. Could you prepare the doc for the discussion on HEMS?”
Health: “What happens with the NHP remains after they have been used for the SARS experiment? Will they be autoclaved out of the BSL4?”

See what I mean? Foreign languages. Everyone speaks them – either at work or at home. Your family probably has some words or phrases that mean absolutely nothing to anyone outside the family. My family, for example, is famous for using lines from an old comedy tape we used to listen to regularly. For those family members reading, remember “You COOKED it? But that bird spoke seven languages!”?

For much of my professional life, I’ve served as a translator, of sorts. It’s my job to distill the language of the experts (whether they’re scientists, agriculturalists, or international aid experts) into a language that you, Joe Average Public, can understand. . It’s not that I have to fully understand any of the languages I’m translating (it would take a PhD to understand most of what the scientists were saying), but I have to somehow convince the experts to dumb down the information enough so that I can understand it and communicate it to the public. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t. Any time you receive a government document, there’s a good chance that someone like me had their hand in translating it. (Hey – don’t blame ME for all the bad government communication out there! I could only do so much.)

When you receive some form of communication – be it a letter, a flyer, or a news piece on the television – you will very quickly shut it out if it has not been translated well. If the communicator speaks a language that’s foreign to you, they haven’t got a chance of catching or keeping your attention. That’s why advertisers are paid well – they have to figure out the language that is best understood and convinces you to buy the product.

We’re all trying to understand each other. Sometimes we get the translation right, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the words are simple, but the message is complex. A simple statement like “I like your shoes” can mean so many different things. Do you REALLY like them or are you being sarcastic and you’ll snicker when I turn my back? Are you trying to imply that I spend too much money on shoes?

Language can be complicated. On the other hand, some forms of communication are beautiful in their simplicity. A smile, for example, translates into any language. I “spoke” to many people in Africa, even though I didn’t know their languages. Watch a child for awhile – they find simple and effective ways to communicate. Yesterday, in a store parking lot, Maddie stopped to admire and talk to a Chinese baby in a stroller. The parents spoke very little English, but they understood that this small child wanted to be friends with their baby. They grinned and patted her head.

Next month, I’ll be facilitating a workshop where I’ll be working as yet another form of translator. It’s a teambuilding workshop, and I’ll be teaching the concept of Six Thinking Hats to help the group understand that people have different ways of thinking and different personalities, and therefore tend to communicate with different languages. When someone says “I don’t like that idea” it may very well mean “that scares me because it’s outside of my comfort zone” or “I feel badly because I have nothing to contribute and you’re always coming up with the good ideas” or “perhaps we can build on your idea to come up with something even better.”

The other night at bedtime, the girls and I read the Bible story of the Tower of Babel – how the people were getting too proud and greedy and self-important, so God confused their language so that they could no longer communicate. Seems that story can be interpreted in many different ways. Maybe they all kept speaking the same basic language (Hebrew, I suppose?), but God changed everyone’s Myers Briggs personality type so that they all interpreted what was being said through different lenses. And consequently, we now have to have workshops and teambuilding sessions to try to bring people back together so that they can build their own mini towers of Babel. Who knows.

Though the languages we speak can make life complicated, and the way we interpret those languages can lead to way too many misunderstandings, I think it’s also what makes life interesting. If, for example, your workplace or home didn’t develop its own language, than nothing would set you apart and you wouldn’t have a special place to feel at home. If my family didn’t repeat silly lines from a comedy tape ad nauseum (to those who married in to our family, I sincerely apologize for the times you’ve had to try to interpret) then we would have fewer strings bonding us together.

Language is one of the building blocks of community. When we share a language, we share ideas and emotions, and we find ways to cling together. Even the blogosphere can do that – how about lol or rofl or btw? Those outside our community wouldn’t understand. (And if you’re inside the community, and don’t understand, I really don’t mean to leave you out, so what I just said was “laugh out loud”, “rolling on the floor laughing”, and “by the way”.) We may come from different places, but if we can share a common language, we can communicate and bond, at least on some levels. We might not always understand the nuances of what other people are saying, but we try, and on that effort, we build relationships.

(Don't say I didn't warn you!)

4 comments:

Accidental Poet said...

Don't forget "What HAVE you done to your hair???"

Dale said...

WTG, Heather! Well said, IMHO.

Linda said...

Interesting. We just had a discussion at the supper table about the word "pimp." I HATE the way young people use that word these days but they try to tell me that it's really not that bad. Oh well, it's MY supper table and that word will not be spoken there because I'M THE BOSS!

Heather said...

h8s2clean - "Must be that HAG Madame Yvonne with her chicken fat!" :-)