How We Interpret and Translate the World is How We See the World
Andrew Keen on the Writer’s Role
Writers are simultaneously interpreters and translators of the world. We seek to interpret things and then translate them for our readers. No surprise to read this here on Lit Hub, a place of literary interpretation and translation par excellence. But the act of translating and interpreting the world go beyond the book. Beyond human language. Beyond perhaps even what we normally consider “life.”
That, at least, is the message of Karen Bakker, a Vancouver-based natural and social scientist. Last week, Bakker appeared on Keen On to talk about her fascinating new book, The Sounds of Life. She explained to me that we now have the digital tools to interpret and translate not just the language of other species, but also trees and plants. Bakker believes this technology will enable a new enlightenment in which we will finally be able to fully communicate with nature.
In the early 20th century, Freud asked women what they wanted. A hundred years later, if Karen Bakker is correct about the next wave of transformational technology, we will be able to ask trees what they want. Life, I’m guessing. And, like women, to be left alone.
Of the digital revolution, Peter Thiel remarked: “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” In another week polluted by a cacophony of nonsense from Elon Musk, the world’s self-appointed “Chief Twit,” Bakker’s vision of the digital revolution is particularly resonant. Our challenge now is keep Karen Bakker’s technology out of the destructive hands of noisome characters like Musk who, no doubt, would try to market an avian Twitter to our flying creature cousins.
“The bird is freed,” Musk tweeted last week to boast of his $44 billion acquisition of the 140 character network. But as Priyanka Kumar, suggested this week, birds are way too smart, beautiful, above all mysterious for Twitter. Kumar’s latest collection of essays, Conversations With Birds, is simultaneously a translation and interpretation of nature for humans. “Reading” nature, especially birds, she wisely told me, allow us to transcend ourselves.
Only humans waste their precious time screeching on the internet about freedom. Birds have been free since before the dinosaurs to converse with themselves and the world. They don’t need Twitter.
Is the act of translation, by definition, also a form of interpretation? Are simultaneous translators also simultaneously interpreters? Yes—at least according to Henrietta Harrison, the Oxford University historian, and another Keen On guest this week. Harrison’s new book, The Perils of Interpreting, a finalist for the prestigious Cundhill prize, is the story of a British and Chinese translator in late-18th century China. Translation is, by definition, interpretation, Harrison told me, especially when trying to translate the languages of two worlds as different as Qing China and Imperial Britain.
With historic midterm elections happening today, how to translate and interpret the contemporary United States of America to a confused world? For Evan Mandery, the author of Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, increasingly inegalitarian America is best understood through the lens of its supposedly meritocratic university system. If you dig up 21st-century America, Mandery suggested to me on this week, you’ll excavate an 18th-century-style aristocratic system. Translation/interpretation, then, often requires excavation.
And to reveal the complexity of contemporary America, sometimes that excavation needs to be literal. Greg Melville, another Keen On guest this Halloween week, believes that America is most effectively translated/interpreted through its graveyards. A self-styled “tombstone tourist” and the author of Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of American Cemeteries, Melville’s archeological interpretation of American history tries to excavate the country’s most complex political and cultural secrets.
The goal of a good translator/interpreter, however, isn’t always to unearth complexity. Sometimes what appears prosaic is, in fact, prosaic. It’s the archeology of the surface. Take, for example, the longtime Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts who gushing music writers often describe as “iconic” or “unique.” But according to Paul Sexton, the author of the official biography, Charlie’s Good Tonight, what was astonishing about Watts was his ordinariness. No need for interpretation or translation here. What you got with Charlie, Sexton told me this week, was Charlie. Just Charlie. A jazzy drummer addicted to Savile Row suits, horses and his family.
In contrast with the extraordinary Keith Richards, Charlie Watts never wrote his own memoir because there really wasn’t much to say. Memorable memoir obviously requires serious self-translation and self-interpretation. Credible memoirists like Maud Newton and Isaac Fitzgerald, two other guests this week, unearth their own suffering. Their stories of themselves and their families are painful to write and painful to read. But they are also essential in their honesty of what it means to be a man or woman in the America of the 2020s.
Both Newton and Fitzgerald dig deep, they get underneath all the body tattoos and other surface noise of contemporary American life. They both resonate with a generosity of spirit and are reminders that, for all its imperfections, America remains the most vibrant and interesting place in the world to live. If you watch/listen to any Keen On this week, please enjoy my conversations with Maud Newton and Isaac Fitzgerald.
Intrepid interpreters/translators of the world like Newton and Fitzgerald dig deep because they believe that they can excavate literary gold. The truth is there, they assume, if you dig deep enough. But what happens if that’s just another enlightenment conceit? What happens if the universe is too complex for us to understand?
The British cosmologist and astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees has spent his long and remarkably distinguished career peering at the universe. And, as he confessed to me this week, the universe simply might be too complex for us humans to understand. We humans are just birds, Rees suggested. Actually we are probably less than Priyanka Kumar’s birds because we think we can interpret and translate things. So even Karen Bakker’s revolutionary digital technology won’t enlighten us.
Humans, birds and trees are all equally ignorant. It’s the blind leading the blind. We are all Charlies. Hallelujah. Interpret/translate that. So shut up and enjoy the music. Interpret Happy Halloween!