Lost in translation

Opinion by Regan Pecjak
Feb. 27, 2018, 4:00 a.m.

Any sane reader knows that reading something in translation means being affected differently than engaging with the original. Some things are lost and others gained as the text wends its way from page to page. And because of this, a question that dogs translations is: Do they contain the same essence as the original?

On the small scale, words can certainly be untranslatable. That is to say, there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between words in every language. Some words just have too many shades of meaning to transfer cleanly from one language to another; for Nabokov it was toská. You don’t have to be fluently bilingual to experience this; it’s hard to miss even if you’re just starting a new language — some words will get used in ways that would be unacceptable in your mother tongue.

The problem with the wealth of connotations means that for a while longer, truly good translations must be the product of humans. Artificial intelligence is providing us with speedy machine translations, which are more accurate than ever before, but that’s a function of the algorithms being exposed to more and more data. Despite the fact that the new Google Translate is better than the old, it still doesn’t understand the meaning of the phrases it’s translating.

It’s impossible to capture the essence of something by looking at its components in the context of what each most likely means. Sure, sometimes you’ll be correct, but without understanding the whole you’ll never capture the essence.

This stands at odds with the research and scholarship in many fields at the moment. The mode is that bigger data is better; in everything from economic modeling to art analysis, scholars are bringing algorithms to bear on ever larger data sets. Sometimes it works: the confirmation of the Higgs boson came from terabytes of data, but it had been predicted by theoreticians decades earlier.

When a work is translated there’s a culture that accompanies it which can’t be captured in big data. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should return to the meticulously researched ethnographies of the past — stuff like “Coming of Age in Samoa” by Margaret Mead — because they come with their own problems.

Books like this are an exercise in trust: believing that the images they present are the way it really is or was. That’s why they can be so controversial; for instance, there’s been dispute over Mead’s book for decades. And even though the anthropological community has decided she did good work, the fact that there was a controversy sticks around — the BBC aired a documentary on it in 2006.

Translation doesn’t have to be between different languages, it can also connect different worldviews, as things like Mead’s book show us. Some of the political polarization of our moment is because Democrats and Republicans fail to connect with one another.

Take passing an immigration bill for example: both sides agree the system is broken and to a point agree with one another about what should be done. However, they refuse to pass even what they’re willing to compromise on in fear of seeming weak for not enforcing all their demands.

Messages and their delivery have power, and the way each base receives its news is totally different. Of course we’ve got new factors like news bubbles, but before Facebook made those possible, Republicans were hearing things like “pro-life” and “illegal immigrants” on Fox News while Democrats heard precisely the same issues presented as “pro-choice” and “undocumented immigrants.” When lexicons are so different, it’s easier to understand why compromise is anathema — they’re hardly discussing the same issues anymore.

This balkanization is emblematic of something deeper. The separation is more than just language; it’s culture, jobs, opportunities and what makes us American. More than bad polling surprised the coasts when Trump carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina and won the presidency.

It’s been said many times before, but there’s an animosity for the people on the coasts from those in the heart of America. The jobs that supported them, manufacturing, industry and the like are gone and will never come back despite Trump’s promises, something that the New York Times loves to remind us of.

And as the jobs have left, so has an integral part of people’s identities. Working has been a part of the sense of dignity of American citizens for about as long as we’ve been a country; there’s a reason that “deadbeat” was coined as an American insult in the late 19th century. An occupation gave people a sense of place in their community, a reason to think they’d be missed if they disappeared one day.

To quote political scientist Charles Murray, there’s been an “erosion of the previous idea of class, where the worker may be poor, but they are just as good.” This phenomenon isn’t unique to middle America, but the intensity of it is. We’re losing another generation, touched by permanent conflict at home rather than a single one abroad. They’ve been embattled by the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the Great Recession, and the further loss of jobs and finally on top of all that the opioid crisis.

There’s no panacea for the ills affecting much of middle America, but regardless, those living there feel as if the people in power don’t understand them, that the ideas cooked up in Washington, D.C. and on the coasts can’t fix what ails them. For instance, here at Stanford: the idea that 3 MBA’s can help develop the Midwest is surely well intentioned, but the odds of success are miniscule. And the trends of globalization can’t be adapted to fit what the US needs without shutting us off from the open markets that a large segment of the economy needs to succeed. As the US economy continues its shift to being more information-driven and adaptability based, things will get worse for these people.

Furthering that key part of the problem — that millions of people feel disenchanted with their worlds and misunderstood by those that seem to have power — the gap can’t be bridged in part because the elite on both sides of the aisle have become comfortable being elite. They make policies which are beneficial to them, such as Trump’s tax plan, which reduces the amount of tax high earners pay far more than it increases spending for low-income people. Ever since Bill Clinton, the Democrats have made peace with the free market, and for the most part there’s no significant redistributional difference in economic policy between the two parties.

This has created an elite culture that stands in contrast to pretty much everyone else. The dichotomy isn’t this clear, but these separate cultures are what allow a book like “Hillbilly Elegy” to become a #1 bestseller.

The lack of comprehension makes us vulnerable to populism, which according to Francis Fukuyama has three main components: feel-good economic policies which are bad in the long term, personal connection between a charismatic leader and the people and the people being subset of the population, usually a group which was dominant in the past.

For the people supporting the charismatic leader, the most important criterion for evaluation is not necessarily how effective the leader is at actually helping them. Rather, what matters is how well they seem to understand their issues, and if they do then maybe one day they can solve them. Think about it: if someone promises what they’re doing will help you, you’re willing to wait and see for longer than if they just act without telling you it’ll be helpful.

Countering this kind of populism is complex, but a simple step is making it so that the disaffected group doesn’t feel so abandoned. The current hustle and bustle emphasizes conspicuous consumption above pretty much everything else; especially with the manicured lives present on social media. In our case that means a return to more traditional values, a revival of what it meant to be successful in America.

It means saying that our relationships with our family matter more than what we can buy for them. It means connecting more with our neighbors and bettering our neighborhoods together. Perhaps it means a return to faith and the community that brings. But most of all it means a return to feeling indispensable in our world.


Contact Regan Pecjak at rpecjak ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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