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Translating: An Act of Love

By Lic., Tr. & Prof. Hugh Torres


Part I. From Creation to Babel.

How can the genesis of language be explained? Several fields of enquiry have contributed valuable information on this question. Sociology has helped linguists determine the status of language: language is a social habit, it appears and develops within a community. Neurology, considering the finding that damage to the left hemisphere of the brain affects the ability to communicate regardless of the language, has provided evidence of an underlying language ability on which all languages rely. Etymology, on its part, has proved a common origin in most languages: words like father (English), Vater (German), pater (Latin), pitar (Sanskrit) clearly evince a kindred morphology that advocates for the existence of an ancient Indo-European language from which these and many other languages developed.

But only anthropology and theology have contributed comprehensive theories that help to account for the beginnings and present diversity of language. These theories are known as 'evolution' and 'creationism', and may be used to support and justify at least two different linguistic hypotheses on the phenomenon of language that I will call nature-oriented and God-oriented.

The nature-oriented hypothesis finds in C R Darwin's theory of evolution (On the Origin of Species, 1859; The Descent of Man, 1871; and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Other Animals, 1872) the mechanism that explains the arousal and development of all human features: succession. The principle of succession shows that, through mutation and natural selection, primitive forms have given way to more complex ones over time. Language is, under this light, a later development in the chain that extends from unicellular organisms to man. Its appearance may be taken as coincident with the homo erectus link (an ape-like homo popularly known as 'caveman'). The supporters of the nature-oriented hypothesis believe that out of necessity, and incapable of helping himself, the caveman demanded attention from his surrounding fellows with knocks, grunts and signs. In time, as his organs of speech and brain became abler, the grunts prevailed and evolved into the sounds of a speech system. This development was gradual and resulted in different forms of speech (languages) at different stages of the evolutionary line, and in different languages within the same stages of development following migration and the isolation of speaking communities.

On the other hand, the God-oriented hypothesis considers language a gift from God, granted to man on creation. From this standpoint, man did not evolve from a speechless being into a communicative one -there can be no evolution from what is not. Man was made communicative, he was created with language capacity and physical ability to express himself. This hypothesis feeds on the teachings of the Holy Scriptures that regard man as a communicative being, capable of interacting with God and other creatures. According to Genesis, 1, when he had no fellow beings to communicate with, he expressed his loneliness to God. Man was not made a solitary being, but one that sought unity in company. Since the time of creation, language has obviously changed, but it has not 'evolved'. The power to communicate, i.e. the language capacity and the ability that man has to express himself, is still the same as in the beginning.

Creation implies that human language capacity (language C) and language ability (language A), just like the capacity and ability to walk, eat, see or sleep, have accompanied man as innate, non-acquired features received by man from God, from our first father according to the flesh to the latest born baby.

At this point, it is worth noting that many linguists would argue language is man's creation and nothing but an acquired habit. They base their assumption on the irrefutable evidence that people learn to speak in a particular way, and there are plenty of different and mutually unintelligible 'languages', whereas innate, non-acquired features like walking, eating, seeing, sleeping, etc. vary 'very little' from man to man. For instance, nobody walks backwards or sideways; but many speak Chinese and others English. Nobody sleeps hanging from his toes like a bat; but many speak Spanish and others Czech.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a misunderstanding in the assumption. To set it right, it is necessary to differentiate language as the ability and capacity to communicate (what I have called language A and C) from language as their exteriorization (language proper). In Spanish there are two different linguistic items for each of the previously alluded concepts: lenguaje and lengua, respectively. Every human being has the same lenguaje (i.e. language A and C). This is non-acquired language. It is a gift from God, not the work of man. The way each human being speaks feeds on the same ability and capacity but is externalized according to the conventions of the place in the form of lenguas. Lenguas are different ways of exteriorizing a unique lenguaje, just as sleeping is one and the same for all but may vary according to circumstances: parents make babies sleep on their chest so that they do not choke with their own regurgitation, natives in Samoa sleep curled up on the floor, most of us learn to sleep in beds, on both sides alternating, etc.. Lenguaje is innate and the same for all human beings; but lenguas are acquired and learnt, they are conventional and circumstantial, hence change from community to community, and from time to time.

Man learns lenguas from his fellow beings, but whatever language he learns, he is always externalizing the same lenguaje. If we consider the way people communicate, we will notice that the members of each community decide the way in which they please to speak, arbitrarily. They establish linguistic conventions that hold for effective communication, and they make every member of the community follow the conventions. The father teaches his son, and the son teaches his. Hence, lenguas are acquired and passed from generation to generation. Those who are unable or unwilling to learn the accepted conventions would face either correction or rejection.

If it was not for the changing circumstances, the many existing lenguas would stay much the same in spite of the passing of time. But circumstances force members of the communities to constantly adapt language to meet new demands 're-stating' the linguistic conventions. So lenguas are certainly diverse, and their change is constant.

Notwithstanding, diversity in lenguas has some restraints, and the pace of change is quite slow. This is due to the qualities of language A and C, and to the fact that the agreement of members is always needed to validate a change.

First, language A is defined by the boundaries of the world, in general, and man's body, in particular. This imposes on lenguas a first and most important leveling factor: nature. Man's body was created able only in some respects, within a restricting physical world. To understand this better, let us consider movement: movement is limited by nature in a way that man is able to move on the ground, but is less able to move under the water and unable to move upwards in the air due to the force of gravity; at the same time, man is able to move on his legs by virtue of their constitution, and less able to move on his arms, or crawl. Nature favours walking over the other options man has to exercise movement.

Likewise, lenguas are limited by nature which defines language A. So much so that in every corner of the world lenguas take the form of speech, i.e. a system of sounds or air vibrations produced by the organs of speech (the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, vocal chords, nasal cavity, throat, lungs) moved at will by electric impulses from the brain, and transmitted to the hearer's auditory organs through air vibrations. Sounds are, in fact, the favourite form of communication since man's bodily constitution and the physical world he lives in makes speech most able. The existence of Chinese, English, Spanish, Czech and other spoken lenguas, rather than prove disparity, shows the awesome uniformity that results from the boundaries of nature.

Nature favours speech, but, at the same time, it enables other less 'convenient' forms that are also externalizations of language A. Writing, gesticulating, Morse coding, sign language, Braille, etc. are often used as substitutes for speech when speech is impaired or unwanted. Those who cannot make use of speech or whose speech ability is affected by malformation or disorders, still possess language ability. Someone who is paralyzed and unable to express in any other way, might resort, for instance, to such an uncomfortable form as winking an eye to communicate. He has language, both language A and language B, though he has no speech.

Normally, when speech is not viable, the principle of economy of effort favours the form which is less physically demanding. This is the reason why more economical forms than winking an eye, forms like writing, typing and mimics, are more popular. Nevertheless, they all fall short of the communicative advantages that speech possesses. If we consider the intonation, stress, rhythm and speed of delivery markers lost in writing, or the tiring effect of gesticulating, we understand why man uses the organs of speech to communicate whenever he can. And, since the average individual possesses functional organs of speech, and auditory organs, these organs being most able in conveying and acquiring messages, there is universal preference for realizing language in the form of speech.

Second, God made man's soul a limited supernatural endowment of memory, willingness and understanding. If we take one of the compounding elements of the soul, for example the memory, we will observe that the impossibility to remember every single event in our lives proves man's memory is limited. So is our willingness and understanding. Due to the fact that language C is a capacity of the soul, it shares the limitations of its host entity. Bluntly said, we can only communicate a limited amount of messages and messages of a set type. We only understand in concepts and, consequently, language C is a conceptual capacity; we want and are satisfied, therefore, language C is exercised to satisfaction; we remember and forget, so, language C allows for repetition and dropping of turns of speech.

It is worth noting that the limitations the soul imposes on language C not only affect the extent of the language capacity; they also shape it. Mirroring the soul (a structure made up of the three elements above), language C is a structure itself, a construct of nominal, verbal and complementary elements that combine and define themselves in opposition to one another, and arrange in different ways to yield the grammars of lenguas. Lenguas, which feed on language C, are inevitably limited in extent and constitution. The existing lenguas and the lenguas-to-be will always conform to the restrictions of the soul and will, therefore, always be constructs that through set nominal-verbal opposition express messages of attainable number and kind.

By virtue of these restrictions, differences among lenguas are as minute and unimportant as differences between the way two people walk or sleep. Spanish and Czech are both forms of language, just as prancing and dragging along are both forms of walking. In other words, linguistic differences only affect language peripherally: the type of sounds used may be different; the conventions that rule the association between sound and meaning may change; and the linear ordering of elements in the language structure may vary. But differences are not consequential enough to distort the universal notion of construct, the polarity of the category of elements, or the preference for speech. From this standpoint, all languages (lenguas) are closely related exteriorizations of language (lenguaje): they are based upon the same capacity and use the same physical ability.

But how did the particular lenguas originate? A few paragraphs earlier I said that language was a grace vested in man for his good. This finds its explanation in the purpose of language: to interact or communicate, that is, to establish a communion or common union among human beings, and between them and God. The spiritual unity to which man is destined is not possible if there is no understanding among people, and the only bridge to understanding is language. This advocates for the early existence of an only lengua (partially corroborated by etymological studies) that served as the medium to interact and give cohesion in love to all the people of the world. The Bible records the presence of this common language in Genesis, 11, and tells the story of Babel.

In Babel, the grace of language that should be fruitful, if applied to God's design, becomes barren when used against it. The Tower of Babel represents man's efforts to reach the Heavens, to get to the place reserved to God; or, interpreting it further, to take his place. The story of Babel is a story of defiance and departure from unity that necessarily reflected upon language. This departure starts when the people of the earth turned their backs to God and felt strong enough to live and do without communion with God (i.e. without communicating with their Creator). They ignored Him and replaced Him for their own ego and were doomed to disunion in hatred through unintelligibility and war. It was not God's will but man's, and He let him proceed simply because He had given man free will and would not overthrow man's freedom. If man had chosen to breach communication, God would not force him.

Yet, the Creator wanted and always wants to communicate with man. That is why in the story of Babel He says "Let us come down and see what man has done". These words are a figure of speech for his interest in man, and his interest is such that he 'came down' to call him and await man's conversion or conversation. Yet man, who had first incommunicado God, had next turned against himself and seeing that his number was great, instead of strengthening union, had let avarice and division grow. Probably, the different groups that dwelt in the city of Babel started looking after their own interests and became secluded from the rest. Seclusion increased to a point that they were not willing to communicate with members of other groups any longer. Possibly, each group wanted to mark differences and, in order to build an identity of their own, incorporated changes in the pristine language: changes in sounds as well as in the conventional associations of form and meaning.

'Let us confound their language' rather than God's sentence is man's own choice. It is man that chooses to make his speech unintelligible to others. When confronted with God's design, man sees like in a mirror his own doings, and hears in God's words the consequences of his own actions. Confusion of tongues is the price of discrimination and avarice. No wonder why men decided to stop building the tower and go their own way. But everyway they went, the story repeated itself until today. It is the never ending story of division and dissension, of thousands of languages product of thousands of years of discrimination and isolation, of lack of communion or communication.

'Now that they have started building the tower and have resolutely set mind in doing so, nothing will be impossible to them and they will become one of us. So let us come down and confound their language and scatter them,' in the words of God, like in the echo of a mountain we can hear the thoughts of the people of Babel and learn their fate. God did not punish them, men chose disunion themselves. Using language against God's design, i.e. to divide, to discriminate, to be selfish, they thwarted the purpose of language which is common union and inevitably reached unintelligibility. This is the root of diversity in language.


Part II. From Babel to today.

In the course of time, the first lenguas originated in Babel have suffered innumerable changes product of circumstance as well as man's work. Changes are diachronic transformations by means of which a lengua adapts to the urging communicative demands of its speakers. The intentional attitude with which the speakers implement the linguistic changes, that is the ultimate purpose of the changes, marks one of two distinct effects upon a lengua: an enriching effect or a desegregating effect.

Enriching changes are linguistic adaptations to circumstance based on the creation of new items and turns of speech, and the adjustment of the arbitrary relations between linguistic forms and meanings that answer a need for naming unnamed realities. When confronted with novel circumstances, the speakers react by modifying their lengua in order to cope with the new perception of the world. As the speakers' perception of the world grows so does the lengua. Examples of enriching changes are the neologisms and adaptations born from scientific and technological development which are created with the purpose of enabling understanding and sharing the advancements with all the speaking community.

But the changes born from novelty and a quest for identity are normally desegregating in effect and the concomitants of discrimination. When people wish to differentiate themselves from the rest, they sometimes use language to do so incorporating changes into their speech. These segregating changes often extend to dress and/or behaviour. They are the outcome not so much of the need to name new perceptions but to distinguish a part of the community from another. Transformations are accepted and cherished by only a group that takes pride in being 'different'. If the group grows and is strong enough to preserve the changes, it succeeds in establishing a style or, in the case of language, a dialect. If the dialect lives long enough to undergo further changes and the number of speakers increases, the group becomes a society and the dialect a lengua in its own right.

Lenguas are such, not only by virtue of the number and quality of changes or speakers, but also when they are used to make a social statement of identity, i.e. when the speakers of a society consciously see themselves as one, and the rest as distant and, often, irreconcilable others. This is sometimes accompanied by further statements of identity in other areas such as music, craft, etc., and by long-term political upheavals and divisions that give rise to nations and countries.

The more segregated a society is from another, the more likely their lenguas are to widen the linguistic gap between them. This is due to the fact that the changes a society operates in a lengua are not confronted or shared with the speakers of a brother society strengthening the array of differences between the forms of speech of the respective societies.

The insistence on lack of communication or communion among different societies is the factor that energizes and powers the growth of dissent in lenguas. Considering that disunion has always been a characterizing feature of human existence, the growth of unintelligibility is not surprising.

Linguistic discrimination is not a language problem but the work of the whole of a society that mistakenly takes pride in their linguistic differences and proudly regard their language as a marker of 'identity'. In such a society, most of its members feel no need to communicate outside their own community and consider the rest 'foreigners': individuals that do not belong.

Some societies have gone as far as to say that their particular language is superior to others and have tricked themselves into believing that only languages that have literature are 'civilized'. This is a silly assumption since all languages fulfil the need for communication alike, as has been stated in Part I of this work. The fact that a particular language has or lacks literature is inconsequential. When literature is absent, societies make use of oral tradition, folklore music, sculpture, painting, pottery and other arts and crafts, or combinations of them, to express imaginings and tell deeds as suitably as literature does.

It is true that some languages have developed linguistic items to name shades of meanings that are absent in others. For example, Eskimo languages can name different whites in the snow and River Plate Spanish has plenty of items to call a horse (according to its colour, sex, age, emotional proximity to the speaker, and to register). This lexical diversity is indicative of geophysical characteristics and the peculiar ecosystem of man's place of habitation. Language communicates, or makes known to others, what the speaker perceives through the lower powers of the soul: the senses; so whatever man perceives finds its way into language. Place an Eskimo in Europe and he will develop linguistic items to name the new concepts that his new home conveys to his mind. Likewise, a European in the Arctic will soon find a way to communicate in language the shades of white that his eyes see.

This proves that no language is better than another, simply, each language serves the purpose of communicating, and transmits the perceptions to which the speaker is exposed. All languages are capable of expressing perceptions even if there are no existing linguistic items to name such reality. New linguistic items can always be coined, in fact, the creation of neologisms (i.e. new items) is and has always been a common linguistic phenomenon.

But, is humanity doomed to unintelligibility? Just as there is a factor that favours the arousal of different lenguas, there is a force at work that operates in the opposite direction: love.

Many times we have heard 'Do as I say but not as I do'. This saying, like the popular English proverb 'Actions speak louder than words', highlights the distinction between saying and doing. It also shows that there are two channels of interaction. People can interact by doing as well as by speaking. God created language to give man cohesion and unity in love. But it is not enough to speak of unity, it is also necessary to do accordingly: speak love and act love to be one in spirit, and one in Him. Yet 'of the abundance of the heart speaks the tongue', thus if man's actions are biased towards division and dissension, speaking and doing will subsequently reflect this departure from unity establishing unintelligibility of tongues, contradictory actions (SINS); and inconsistency between what is done and what is said (LIES).

Sins and lies are departures from love that can only be redeemed by the conversion of the sinner/liar himself. The one who sins or tells a lie has chosen to spread disunion with his own hand and tongue, and no one but himself, letting the grace of truth work upon him, can uproot the seed of division.

As for unintelligibility of tongues, a return to language unity would imply understanding among all peoples through communication. But, unlike redeeming a sin or a lie where only the sinner/liar has to change, world understanding would require a universal effort. In this respect, there have been several attempts towards global communion, most directed to the establishment of a universal surrogate tongue. Esperanto, Latino Sine Flexione, Novial, Interglosa, Interlingua and Volapuk are some popular examples. Nevertheless, none has been successful and never will, unless all individuals feel the need to return to unity and set aside their desegregating interests. This seems rather improbable.

Yet, a few men and women have made a profession out of fighting unintelligibility. They devote their time and skills to partially redressing the ravages of division by creating renderings in the languages of two previously unrelated parties. They work in God's plan: common union; and, by doing so their renderings are not just commercial acts, but acts of love as well. These men and women go by the name of translators.

A translator is a person whose vocation is serving as a bridge to abridge the differences that thousands of years of division have caused. He/she lays a road that takes speakers of a lengua into a new world, the world of a foreign lengua with its peculiarities and differences now made known and available to understanding. The translator is the builder of the bridge that leads to communication and communion. Translators translate division into unity, and in doing so they act in love.