A Short Piece
Do we fully know a language or fully believe what we have to translate into understanding?
(This reflection will expand on topics presented in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose.)
We don’t fully know a language until we don’t have to translate it. A native English speaker, I don’t have to “translate” English when I hear it: I just “know” what it means. Perhaps in a sense I am translating the words into concepts, but I’m certainly not translating English into Latin and then into concepts. Considering this, I think it’s fair to say that languages we really know are ones we don’t translate: if some kind of translation occurs, it’s so quick and automatic that it’s practically not translation at all.
Because there’s no translation, I personally can more readily “feel at ease” and “at home” in English than say in ASL. To this day, I can’t shake the habit of trying to understand sign language by translating it into English, but this means I don’t possess full fluency. Also, it means that I probably feel more nervous using ASL than others.
Now, at the same time, there is a sense where someone who can “translate a language fast enough” could be practically identical with a native speaker, and so it is possible for skills in translation to close the gap so much that the technical distinctions are secondary. Also, if I never faced the problem of “translation,” that would mean I only ever learned a single language: my world would be closed and much smaller. No one learns a second language without facing the problem of translation and the dilemma of trying to make a second language one that can be expressed without any translation at all. If my world is going to expand, translation is the only way.
Also, it’s possible for me to practically know a language as well as a native speaker even if I still have to translate it, but if there is translation, I probably won’t feel as comfortable as a native speaker. Similarly, as we will now explore, it is possible for me to practically believe something as much as someone who has never questioned it, but if I have to think about my beliefs, I probably won’t feel as comfortable in them as someone to whom the beliefs are still “given.”
Similarly, as we don’t fully know a language that we have to translate, we may not fully “believe” a worldview that we have to translate into rational and justified terms. As our native tongue is “given,” so a worldview we “fully believe” is also “given.” And as it seems nearly impossible to ever speak a language we aren’t born with as well as a language we are, it seems nearly impossible to ever “believe something” like the worldview we are born into versus one we later accept. The reason for this seems to be that to accept a new worldview, we have to accept that no worldview must be “given,” making our relationship to any new worldview more tenable and less sure of itself (though we could try to change that by becoming fundamentalist, accepting brainwashing, etc.). Similarly, it seems we never fully overcome “the problem of translation” regarding any second or third language we learn, making our experience of new languages always feel slightly distant and “off.”
But as the risk of a native tongue is to never expand beyond it (because its “immediate effectiveness” is so great, and the bar of learning another language so high, etc.), so likewise the risk of a “native worldview” is to never consider other worldviews beyond it (as anyone more than a passing tourist) and to consequently never be fully critical of one’s own worldview. If this mistake is made, we are uniquely susceptible to “the banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt described (as discussed in “Belonging Again”), but it also means we are more likely to feel “belonging” because our “givens” function “thoughtlessly” to us. If we take the step of moving beyond our “native worldview” and really enter into alternative systems of thought (versus just be a tourist), we may never be able to feel “belonging” the same way again. Expansion entails necessary risks, but if we don’t try to expand, we will be especially vulnerable to fundamentalism and “the banality of evil.”
As I can theoretically learn a second language so well and translate it so incredibly quickly that I am practically a “native speaker,” so I can learn to so skillfully and profoundly enter into alternative “givens” and worldviews that I practically live as I am a “native believer” of ideas I wasn’t born into. Likewise, I can so quickly justify my own worldview rationally that I can practically live as if my premises are “given” even if we know they are not. But will most people be able to gain this kind of skill?¹ If not, then the problems outlined in “Belonging Again” due to Pluralism and Globalization (neither of which are inherently bad) — the growing appeal of totalitarianism, tribalism, etc. — will only intensify.
Translation requires energy and thought, and it can be tiring and exhausting. The better we get at a new language, the less energy the translation requires, but if we can never entirely escape translating a new language — if it’s like apostrophe lines — then there will always be some degree of additional energy use that staying in our “native tongue” did not require. So it goes with new worldviews and new ideas: unless we are to become isolationists, Pluralism will require more energy of us than a world without Pluralism. Yes, without Pluralism, we couldn’t be as diverse, creative, and open to new possibilities, but we also wouldn’t have to feel so tired. Pluralism makes it hard to “belong,” to rest. Is it worth it? Even if not, there’s no going back.
It’s possible for me to practically know a language as well as a native speaker even if I still have to translate it, but if there is translation, I probably won’t feel as comfortable as a native speaker. Likewise, it is possible for me to practically believe something as much as someone who has never questioned it, but if I have to think about my beliefs, I probably won’t feel as comfortable in them as someone to whom the beliefs are still “given.”
In a weird and paradoxical way, we don’t “know” something we must think about, yet if we don’t think about something, in what sense do we “know” it? Well, there are things we “once thought about” that we cannot think about “presently” or we couldn’t think new thoughts: if we always focused on the foundation, we could never construct the house. But once we build a house, the cost of “re-thinking” our foundation is higher, for if we realize our foundation is wrong, we have to tear down the whole house. So after we assume x, the more we advance assuming x, the more difficult it is to ever go back.
Pluralism puts us in a state of constantly having to recognize that “x could have been different,” per se, and this can be mentally and existentially exhausting. Suffering this exhaustion, we can be tempted with isolationism, tribalism, and the like. In this state, we find ourselves constantly having to “translate” our foundations and beliefs into “defendable positions” in order to feel justified to continue holding our positions. Perhaps our beliefs are entirely justifiable, but we can’t always hold within our minds “the full case,” meaning that when we face certain questions, we can find ourselves having to recall all the previous arguments, ideas, and positions we held. And perhaps we do so successfully, but having to do so at all (especially constantly) can be exhausting. Nothing ever feels like it “flows” (especially since at the end of the day certainty is mostly impossible, a reality from which “givens” could hide us).
A life of constant self-justification is like speaking a language that we constantly translate. Can we ever feel like a “native speaker?” Can we ever feel at home? I leave that question up to you — please answer it with your own tongue.
¹For me, this is similar to the inquiry brought up in “Beauty Saves” by O.G. Rose on the question of if the majority could be Deleuzian and/or Hegelian? Ultimately, the paper concludes “beauty” is more likely the better solution for the majority. Indeed, there will be thousands if not millions of people for whom Deleuze and Hegel will work, but I doubt there will be billions.