Wednesday, May 4, 2011

lost in translation, mired in misunderstanding

"Director: [in Japanese] Mr. Bob-san, you are relaxing in your study. On the table is a bottle of Suntory whiskey. Got it? Look slowly, with feeling, at the camera, and say it gently -- say it as if you were speaking to an old friend. Just like Bogie in Casablanca, 'Here's looking at you, kid!' -- Suntory time.
Translator: Umm. He want you to turn, look in camera. OK?
Bob: That's all he said?
Translator: Yes. Turn to camera.
Bob: All right. Does he want me to turn from the right, or turn from the left?
Translator: [to director, in Japanese] Uh, umm. He's ready now. He just wants to know if he's supposed to turn from the left or turn from the right when the camera rolls. What should I tell him?
Director: [in Japanese] What difference does it make! Makes no difference! Don't have time for that! Got it, Bob-san? Just psych yourself up, and quick! Look straight at the camera. At the camera. And slowly. With passion. Straight at the camera. And in your eyes there's... passion. Got it?
Translator: [to Bob] Right side. And with intensity. OK?
Bob: Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.
Director: [to Bob, in Japanese] Listen, listen. This isn't just about the whiskey. Understand? Imagine you're talking to an old friend. Gently. The emotions bubble up from the bottom of your heart. And don't forget, psych yourself up!
Translator: Like an old friend. And, into the camera.
Bob: OK
Director: [in Japanese] Got it? You love whiskey. It's Suntory time. OK?
Bob: OK.
Director: OK?
Bob: [nods]
Director: [to crew] OK!"

It's Suntory time! Lost in Translation brings up the challenges of communication, the self-discovery we can find in foreign places and strangers, the way that so much of what we try to say is lost in the process of saying it. The scene above presents the obvious surface level of miscommunication existing in language and cultural barriers. There is a beautiful parallel echo to the above scene in the following -- a scene in which Bob (Bill Murray) speaks to his wife, Lydia, on the phone, time and space merely two among so many disconnections between the pair.

"Lydia: [over the phone] Is this a bad time?
Bob: [pauses] No, it's always a good time.
Lydia: The burgundy carpet is out of stock: it's going to take twelve weeks. Did you like any of the other colors?
Bob: Whatever you like... I'm just completely lost.
Lydia: It's just carpet.
Bob: That's not what I'm talking about.
Lydia: What are you talking about?
Bob: I don't know. I just want to... get healthy. I would like to start taking better care of myself. I'd like to start eating healthier -- I don't want all that pasta. I would like to start eating like Japanese food.
Lydia: [icily] Well, why don't you just stay there and you can have it every day?
Bob: [biting his tongue] How are the kids doing?
Lydia: They're fine. They miss their father. [pause] Do I need to worry about you, Bob?
Bob: Only if you want to."

This time the translation isn't from language to language, but person to person... and so much still remains lost... and perhaps more poignantly so than the Suntory scene, its comic counterpart. For all of the times that we communicate effectively, how many more times do we miscommunicate? I did a quick search on a well-known scholarly database for 'misunderstanding'. What came hurtling back at me was over 3,400 articles about all of our confusions, wrong ideas, misinterpretations, misjudgments, and delusions. Apparently what we misunderstand is massive. We misunderstand literature, history, other cultures, scientific theories, economics, markets, politics, interpretation of these topics... the past, the present, the future, meaning itself. Misunderstanding is not just a loss; it is a failure. It involves taking something in the wrong sense, ofttimes unknowingly. We misunderstand so much and so often that we may even lose sight of where we started. In an article about the misinterpretations of economic behavior, Donald Katzner suggests as much in titling his paper, "What are the questions?" (Katzer, "What Are the Questions?" Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, vol. 25, no. 1 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 51-68)

What are the questions? Trying to identify the questions is a fundamentally important endeavor. We need to be able to communicate with each other. "No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine" wrote John Donne in the 17th century. But if we are not even on the same page to begin with, how can we successfully share space on the 'Continent'? What if I don't even know what continent you are on?

The problem isn't just in the question... or the words. Communication is not just verbal, "but also [works through] gestures, attitudes, acts, facial expressions, even by silent listening... interrelationships are profoundly influenced by the fact that words may say one thing while the total communication may be something entirely different." (Lester Kirkendall & Curtis Avery, "Ethics and Interpersonal Relationships," The Coordinator, vol. 3, no. 6 (Mar, 1955), p. 5) Conversely, miscommunication can be nonverbal as well: the head turning away, the eyes poised resolutely downward, the face icy and blank...

It seems that clear and direct communication would be the most natural thing in the world. However, it is quite the opposite. People need to work at communicating with each other. They need to learn strategies and look for cues. It is hard work! It requires that you care about investing in that other person because, otherwise, why bother? Communication requires empathy and being able to 'see clearly'... being able to match up your perspective with another's self-evaluation or vice versa. In a marriage, aspects of effective communication include: "understanding... accuracy... perceptual competence... and predictive empathy. [These terms] have been used interchangeably to represent the extent to which one individual's estimate of another actually resembles the latter's self-assessment." (Julie Indvik & Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, "If You Could Read My Mind, Love...," Understanding and Misunderstanding in the Marital Dyad," Family Relations, vol. 31, no. 1 (Jan, 1982), p. 43) Because we can't read each other's minds, we need to consciously learn how to listen, how to translate, how to speak new languages even; we need to possess genuine intentions to get as far within the other person as possible. This sort of understanding can only be motivated by true respect and deep love.

The strict post-modernist will tell you that the 'author' is dead... along with God and metanarrative and linearity and truth. Yet, it seems rather ridiculous a proclamation when it seems we are all still trying to be the author of our lives, our relationships, of meaning and understanding. It seems so passive to have to become the listener, the one who understands rather than the one who creates the meaning. And could we truly understand if we were to fulfill the post-modernist's desire and to separate meaning from intention, text from context, discourse from author? Foucault tells us it would be easy to "imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. Discourses, whatever their status, form, or value, and regardless of our manner of handling them, would unfold in a pervasive anonymity. No longer the tiresome repetitions:
'Who is the real author?'
'Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?'
'What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?'

New questions will be heard:

'What are the modes of existence of this discourse?'
'Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?'
'What placements are determined for possible subjects?'
'Who can fulfill these diverse functions of the subject?'

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:
'What matter who's speaking?'" (Michel Foucault, "What is An Author?" in Chandra Mukerji & Michael Schudson (eds.), Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991), p. 462)
Are these really tiresome questions? Is the murmur of indifference reassuring for us in its anonymity? Sometimes, it is true, a stranger seems to have a better ability to understand than the ones that know and love us best. In "As We Know," John Ashberry evokes that moment of connection between strangers, of their ability to put aside a need to grasp and "examine" and resolve the "whole" all at once... and in the simple notion of looking honestly at a moment... in the simple turning to face another in pure openness, true understanding can be had:
The light that was shadowed then
Was seen to be our lives,
Everything about us that love might wish to examine,
Then put away for a certain length of time, until
The whole is to be reviewed, and we turned
Toward each other, to each other.
Ashberry's eloquent repetition of 'each other' counters Foucault's suggestion that the repetition is tiresome. Yes, the author matters. The author is human. The author has a 'profound self.' The author has a voice. And that voice cannot just cry out into the forest, wondering if it hears him when he leaves, just as he wonders if its fallen trunks make any noise when the woods are full of emptiness and silence.

Richard Sennett implicates the many misunderstandings that arise when people look at abstract art, especially that which began to be produced "in the 1950s, beginning with Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Dubuffet, something radical began to happen to paintings: they no longer were meant to be seen vertically, the surface of the painting confronting the eye, but horizontally, and thus at a more oblique angle to the human viewer in an upright posture. Steinberg calls these 'flat-bed' paintings. 'They no more depend... on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does..." (Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye (New York: Norton, 1990), pp. 223-4) In this case, misunderstanding runs rampant because we are looking at something sideways, trying to 'read' its text through the wrong context. We have the wrong confrontation, the wrong correspondence. The Other remains completely foreign and forever impenetrable. We must first become strange to ourselves, and then return to look again at the Other... in an attempt to truly understand.

Understanding involves just this sort of "estrangement and return... It is assumed based on an underlying commonality uniting Self and Other... [and misunderstanding can be overcome when the Self becomes] aware of the individuality of the 'Thou' and take[s] account of his uniqueness..." (William Rasch, "Injecting Noise into the System: Hermeneutics and the Necessity of Misunderstanding, SubStance, vol. 21, no. 1, Issue 67 (1992), p. 61) Must difference be 'extinguished' in order to understand? Or is it possible to engage in an 'elusive dance' that recognizes the Other's fundamental strangeness but also sees the Self embedded within the Other?

How can we hear each other amidst the noise, amidst the words that become too many and too complicated and thereby overwhelm comprehension? How can we preserve the self and nonetheless still protect the other? How can we understand when each seems to be in a different conversation, on a different continent, in separate worlds? Lydia and Bob seem to want to connect... or rather, reconnect. Her desire to include him in household decisions may arise from a desire to place him centrally in the home from which he is currently estranged -- both physically and otherwise. His desire to involve her in recognizing his need to evolve is coming from an equally good place -- he is attempting to share his growth... and perhaps even asking, indirectly, for help in the process. But one conversation fights with the other like opposing magnets. They speak directly and yet in code... and no one seems aware of the other's starting point. They are estranged, but not returning, perhaps not knowing where to return to. They peer at each other sideways, everything 'lost in translation.'

We live in "a world of Others -- a world in the image of the Other who wishes to remain other. In this world of Others, disagreement or misunderstanding does not arrive as an aberration against a background of understanding, to be excluded by both participants of a dialogue. Rather, it is thrown up by the Other as a protective screen..." (Rasch, pp. 62-63) Therein, misunderstanding may be sometimes be conscious, a shield against losing oneself in the otherness of the complete dissonance of our noisy world.

Misunderstanding comes not from an inability to replicate another's message but perhaps from an unwillingness to dive into the scary sea of ambiguity. When speaking, a 'sender' gives a particular message... yes... but he also chooses not to give a million other messages. Understanding requires recognizing this choice as much as it does grasping the attitude with which the sender sends his particular message. All of this is quite uncertain. A speaker speaks with a voice underlain by the need for interpretation...and this interpretation, made across the space of otherness, will always remain unreliable, uncertain, unstable. Misunderstanding and understanding then rest on the same instability. Perhaps it is not how we interpret, but how we receive that matters the most.

But I wonder where does the loss go? For all that I do not know about understanding another human being, I do know that misunderstanding becomes physical. It tightens the gut. It tears up the eyes. It tightens the throat and shortens the breath. It tears at your insides as if that very otherness, the extreme aloneness and isolation is the one and only condition of being in the world. And thus perhaps our attempts to understand... they matter. They matter, even if we do not understand. They matter even if we only listen and still walk away with so much uncertainty. They matter because we have been present, because we have shown our desire to connect, because we have put our arms around the one we love and reassured her that her feelings and thoughts and desires matter to us... because it is in understanding that lies the 'origin of things.'
"On the Origins of Things" (Troy Jollimore)

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken performers
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding? As for the dominant
thesis regarding the origin of love, I
abstain from comment, nor will I allow
myself to address the idea that dance
began as a kiss, that happiness was
an accident import from Spain, that the ancient
game of jump-the-fire gave rise
to politics. But I will confess
that I began as an astronomer -- a liking
for bright flashes, vast distances, unreachable things,
a hand stretched always toward the furthest limit --
and that my longing for you has not taken me
very far from that original desire
to inscribe a comet's orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.
Misunderstanding leaves us in the dark. Understanding, without complete success, is that hand across the 'vast distance' writing traceless circles tenderly amongst ancient and forever star-light... around each other, to each other.

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