There will come a day when a babble fish app will be able to translate and interpret multiple languages in real time. Is this the end of learning languages? Perhaps. But what a shame. For what profit is there in gaining the whole grammar but losing your soul?
In the short story Funes el memorioso, Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges describes the fictitious Ireneo Funes, a young man possessing an impeccably accurate, infinite memory. Although this intellectual gift allows Funes to pick up multiple languages with tremendous app-like ease, the narrator witnesses the surprising limits to such prowess. Borges writes,
“(Funes) Había aprendido sin esfuerzo el inglés, el francés, el portugués, el latín. Sospecho, sin embargo, que no era muy capaz de pensar. Pensar es olvidar diferencias, es generalizar, abstraer. En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no había sino detalles, casi inmediatos.”
[(Funes) had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he wasn't very capable of thinking. To think is to forget differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the overcrowded world of Funes there was nothing but details, one after another.*]
So this guy Funes could have knocked most standardized tests out of the park and earned 5s on all his AP language exams to boot. So what? In the story he sits alone and stares out a window to relieve his mind from its relentless collection of information–tiny truths– that he could never form into big Truths (if such things exist) or anything approaching insight or understanding. Thus he missed the point–and the value–not only of speaking another language, but of learning it.
Translators, even the best ones, are liars: well-meaning liars, but liars nonetheless. Anyone familiar with more than one language knows it’s virtually impossible to simply replace a word in one language with a word in another. How one expresses politeness linguistically, for example, can vary wildly even within the same language depending on the cultural context. Yet translators give the impression that what is said in one language can be reflected in the other like a mirror or a math equation (A=B, and that is that). A break-through occurs when a language student finally realizes she needs to let go of the native language and immerse herself in the second language in order to fully communicate. While floating around in the second language she may even realize that the world looks different. This is the space in which insight and understanding can grow.
The new translator apps remind me of an old story: the original Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum. In the book, unlike the movie, the Emerald City isn’t really emerald. All citizens and visitors are required to have glasses with green lenses firmly locked over their eyes while they are within the city limits. In this same way these apps, as they continue to improve, may allow their users to communicate in certain situations, but the user will never have the key to unlock the lens. In time, the users may even forget that the locked lens exists–maybe we will all begin to insist that the world, wherever we look, is green and we will forget that it is really many colors.
So here’s to all those who teach and learn languages, and here’s to the mistakes we make, the faux pas we commit and the humility we cultivate (like it or not) so we can connect with others on this small planet.
*This is my poor translation. I believe the phrase “casi inmediatos” at the end of the paragraph really has the idea of things that “almost touch” or adjoin each other. The description of details in Funes’ mind, then, might be something like pixels on a screen or dots in a work by Georges Serrat. Due to the constant avalanche of information that Funes’ prodigious memory provides him, he lacks the mental space necessary to step back and interpret possible relationships between and among the dots.