Lost in Translation

Language is one of the great accomplishments of the human species. It allows us to collaborate and share ideas, and occasionally to convey feelings. It also creates an endless, plummeting spiral towards misunderstanding. For every word and every person who speaks that given language, there are that many different meanings. We all carry our own connotations and understandings, malaprops and yearnings.

So it goes that we mean one thing and say another, fear the consequences of being direct and speak in veiled lines, and always view the opportunity cost as too high. Getting what we want is rarely worth losing what we have. Asking for what we need is a vulnerability that oscillates wildly between an act of bravery and an admission of weakness. Admitting we were wrong is up there with walking barefoot on hot coals; it is simply unfathomable in a world where we are expected to live for many more years and encounter the same people again.

The crisis of subjectivity has plagued humanity as long as language has existed. We cannot know if what we are saying is what others are hearing; we cannot even know if my “red” looks the same as your “red.” The gnawing, performative need for inclusion drives us towards acting in ways that may not align with our truest selves. We repeat phrases and ideas in an attempt to be included, but what is the true value of inclusion based on false pretense? The desire for a companion so often outweighs the need to know the self. The need to pay the bills turns into a sense of security that cannot be abandoned, until we are prisoners to a delicate house of cards that is in danger of toppling at any second. Walking away from a paycheck is relegated to the stuff of indulgent daydreams. Losing a steady job crushes the morale of even the most independent souls.

Ultimately, we are confined to the languages we share with others. The spoken and written languages of the world. The things we trade in. The artistic media that leave everything open to interpretation yet create fleeting bits of solace and solidarity. Fiat currencies and lingua francas. When they’re working, we rarely reconsider our options.

And yet, when there is no way to express how we feel, there are two options: art or crippling misunderstanding. We strive to express ourselves and be understood, or we succumb to the pressures of a world that demands so much from us. Debts, obligations, transactions, interactions. We are born into a system without asking to be, and we are stuck playing by its rules. The rules don’t much care who you are. Even those who manage to operate above the laws of the land are subject to the laws of nature and physics. They are absolute and they are unforgiving, written in the elements—a timeless, universal language.