One video on my recommended play list is Emp Lemon's takedown of Behind the Meme. For background, "Behind the Meme" is a YouTube channel that explains memes to those who aren't familiar with them. Emp Lemon's main complaint is that in trying to explain meme culture to outsiders (whom they term "normies"), Behind the Meme dumbs down Internet meme culture. Emp Lemon claims that rather than trying to bring outsiders inside, Behind the Meme takes something that only makes sense within its own native culture and bastardizes it by bringing it outside.
|If you have to ask for an explanation like I did, then it's you this meme is talking about. Also, I apologize for using what I'm sure is a "stale meme."|
I'm familiar with this
I'm a translator for a living. I mean that in the literal sense: I take stuff from one language and render it in English. I find it to be a profound responsibility. I not only need to get it right for the target audience, those who will read it in English, but I also have a responsibility to get it right for those being translated. It's hard enough for two people in this world to understand each other when they grew up in the same house. A bad translator can add misunderstanding exponentially.
I've started to think lately that I take on the attitude of a translator in my private life as a semi-professional writer. That is, whether as a fiction writer or a non-fiction writer (like here on this blog), I often semi-consciously see myself as a translator. I try to explain writing to those who are outside, trying to find a way in. But I also try to explain cultures I've had a chance to get somewhat inside of to those who are outside of them. In my last post, for example, I not only tried to explain something about stressed African-American communities in places like Baltimore where my wife taught, but also to explain something about conservative, evangelical-leaning communities to liberals.
This isn't, perhaps, the most purely writerly way of doing things. A lot of writers would think like Emp Lemon, that the goal of a story isn't to bring a character to someone else, it's to present the character in a pure and authentic way that allows the reader to come to the character. The writer isn't a bridge halfway between the world of the character and the reader; the writer is a door that opens to the character's world, and the reader must make a choice to open it and go in.
I can't help myself
I've been accused of waffling a lot as a writer and a thinker. Even when I clearly have an opinion, I feel it necessary to first prove that I understand what the other side thinks, that I know why they have this opinion, that I respect that opinion and see its value to some extent, but that I merely disagree in specific ways. I just can't help myself. A long run as a translator has made me sensitive to how often people are talking past one another, even when they speak the same language.
Of course, any time you try to interject yourself into a conversation two people are having, you risk them turning on you. Even if you did it to try to help, you may face the question, "Who asked you to translate for me?" A younger Ta-Nehisi Coates once determined not to be a translator of his culture to outsiders. As Robin D.G. Kelley sums it up in an excellent summary of the recent Coates-West Twitter war:
Coates found his calling during a particularly combative period for black intellectuals. In March of 1995, West was the target of a scurrilous attack by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, an essay promoted on the issue’s cover with the headline “The Decline of the Black Intellectual.” A month later Adolph Reed, Jr., followed with a piece in the Village Voice titled, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual” which names West, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, and yours truly. In the essay, Reed characterizes us as modern-day minstrels and attacks us for being “translators” of black culture to white folks, and thus palatable to fawning white liberals. Reed’s piece left a deep impression on Coates. As he recalls in We Were Eight Years in Power, “I was determined to never be an interpreter."
Later, however, Coates grew to think differently:
"It did not occur to me (Coates) that writing is always some form of interpretation, some form of translating the specificity of one’s roots or expertise or even one’s own mind into language that can be absorbed and assimilated into the consciousness of a broader audience. Almost any black writer publishing in the mainstream press would necessarily be read by whites. Reed was not exempt. He was not holding forth from The Chicago Defender but from The Village Voice, interpreting black intellectuals for that audience, most of whom were white.”
Like it or not, there will always be translation, because it is human to want to understand what is outside our experience. Ultimately, the goal would always be to understand the other on its own terms, but that's simply not possible. We can't all read the Bible in Greek.(And even if we can, we can't all learn Aramaic to try to guess at what the underlying words of Christ were that the Greek is a translation of.)
Translator and Interpreter
Coates used the terms "translator" and "interpreter" interchangeably, but of course, strictly speaking, they are very different roles. An interpreter rapidly changes spoken words from one language to another. I respect interpreters a lot. It's a role that requires linguistic virtuosity, in my view. I can only do it in a pinch, and rather poorly. Except for volunteer work, I almost never interpret. I almost always only translate, and then only into my native language. This is a much easier form of translation. I can translate a Korean novel into English, but I'd have a terrible time translating even my own stories into Korean.
There's something about the etymology and just the feel of the two words, interpreter and translator, that are revealing about the differing psychology. "Interpret" is from a combination of "inter," meaning "between," and, most likely, a verb meaning "to sell" or "to traffic in." The interpreter is literally between two things. "Translate," however has a notion of crossing over, "trans" meaning "across." There is even a meaning to the word where one is literally translating objects from one place to another. In order to translate, you don't stand between two worlds, you go to one and bring something back from it to another.
While in the day-to-day world, both interpreting and translation have their place, if I take the psychological notion of these things into writing, I begin to have some idea what I view as legitimate translation. Legitimate translation is not interpreting, which is primarily a business-focused activity focused on some tangible end, like negotiating a trade deal. Cultural translation is legitimate only if it truly brings one world into another. It requires transporting oneself between two locations.
Ideally, the best translator will be so effective at bringing one world into another, it will almost feel that the translator is in two worlds at once. This is the only way the two worlds really have a chance to understand one another if what they hope for is more than just a transactional kind of co-existence. It is, however, hard on the translator. Being eternally in more than one world ends up leaving the translator feeling a little rootless. I sometimes wonder if I have spent so much time trying to communicate the values of one group to another, I don't even know what my own values are anymore. There is a kind of madness in being a translator.
That's how Borges viewed Shakespeare. In "Everything and Nothing," Borges imagines Shakespeare like this:
There was no one in him; behind his face (which even in the poor paintings of the period is unlike any other) and his words, which were copious, imaginative, and emotional, there was nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone. At first he thought everyone was like him, but the puzzled look on a friend’s face when he remarked on that emptiness told him he was mistaken and convinced him forever that an individual must not differ from his species.
Shakespeare ends up coping with his inability to be himself by being hundreds of people, by being each of the characters he creates. Still, at the end, he desires some self-identity:
The story goes that, before or after he died, he found himself before God and he said: “I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.” The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: “Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”
I do get tired of writing sometimes. It's hard to work to bring some character to life, to be that character for a while, to bring that character from his world into this one, and then to have nothing to show for it except that I've done it. For now, I'm still continuing along this road I've picked for myself, both in my day job and in the writing I still hope might one day be my day job. But it's a long road to travel on, and I do find myself longing sometimes to be one man and myself.