how ‘not understanding’ a different code
can stimulate creativity and lead you wherever you want to go
The first time I heard someone speak in French was at home. I was in high school at the time and my mum had enrolled on this not so elementary course in French in order to brush up her own speaking skills. I remember we had this very talkative Canadian neighbour, Noelle, who would always pass by and utter something in French—I mean, not just, ‘Salut, madam !’ but something more complicated and quick-paced and rather indistinct for someone like me, who knew nothing of French beyond the usual morning and evening greetings. Sometimes, Noelle would actually ring our bell to see if my mum was in and, if so, they would have a fifteen-minute chat in French. If I happened to be home, I’d casually overhear, understanding very little, yet beginning to find the sound of an unintelligible code rather fascinating.
I believe there is something appealingly mysterious —or mysteriously appealing—about languages we don’t know or don’t know well enough to understand. Now, according to Macmillan Dictionary, we ‘understand’ something when we know what something means. But, can this definition of ‘understand’ be applied to our experience of hearing a foreign language spoken to us? Do we not usually make an effort to understand even when we don’t naturally understand? And does not that effort result in some sort of understanding, even if we don’t know the meaning of the words or gestures or intonation being used?
In fact, I don’t believe in our non-understanding of languages. We may misunderstand, but never nonunderstand. Whenever we hear or read in a foreign language code, we always understand some thing or other. It’s impossible for us human beings—sociolinguistic subjects as we are—not to try and make sense of the foreign codes we encounter, whether it be music, dog-barking or an unknown natural language.
Maybe it takes a strong will and some emotional intelligence to put our five senses at the service of trying to make sense of a foreign code, but even when you give up on the challenge because you ‘don’t understand a word they’re saying’, you actually grasped something, because you can’t help attributing some sort of meaning to all that noise you’ve been exposed to. Whether it’s voluntary or not, even if we may not be fully able to decipher or ‘decode’ (as Jakobson would prefer) a foreign language, we can’t help hearing its sounds as someone speaks, perceiving tone, interpreting body language and feeling the strangeness, the uneasiness of the whole experience.
Despite that feeling of ‘I surely missed the whole point’, that we were not actually communicating with our interlocutor, we can’t help making sense of the noise. Because a culture and its language and the meaning of their signs are so interdependent, the words coming out of a speaker whose language is foreign to us tend to sound polysemous to our ears: we know nothing about it, so words can mean virtually anything, the sky is the limit… Well, perhaps I shouldn’t ignore the fact that context and co-text always play a part. Otherwise, someone could assume that I think no one ever succeeded in communicating effectively with another person just because they spoke different languages, which is not the case. People manage to communicate, to make themselves understood, in spite of language and cultural differences all the time. But that doesn’t imply that they understand the language, in the sense of knowing what the words in that language actually mean.
Meaning in itself is so relative a category within each culture and language in particular that to think of it as the KPI of understanding sounds a bit daunting and, at the same time, invigorating. Suppose someone stops me in the street and poses a request for directions in German. I know almost nothing of German, so I don’t even get this is a request-for-instructions speech act they are performing. Do I feel uneasy? Yes. Do I regret not finishing that German course last year? Yes. Do I panic? Probably, because I want to understand. Do I misunderstand? Highly likely to happen. Do I not-understand? No, because I read this German-speaking’s facial expression and guess they are worried, in need of some sort of help they somehow believe I could provide them with; they sound as if they were asking for something, perhaps some gesture or other, if any, will give me a hint?
When I start learning a new foreign language, I always enjoy listening to music in that language. I like the idea of not getting the lyrics and, because of my lack of ‘understanding’, being able to guess, to imagine, to infer, to create meaning based on the music only. Sometimes this can lead to writing, as a song you think you understand in a particular way may inspire you to write a story or a poem or anything else based on your particular understanding of it, even if the real meaning, the one approved and endorsed by convention in that language, is completely different from what you fancied it was.
I think it’s a healthy practice for translators to go for a language we don’t know and/or don’t work with in order to constantly revive that sense of discovery that every learning process entails. I also see it as a useful strategy when it comes to teaching Literary Translation in training programmes for translators, since showing students they can translate a text (e.g., audible text only, with no visual input), even if they don’t understand it word per word, may show them the importance of interpreting in Literary Translation as opposed to the supremacy generally attributed to ‘the words’ and the use of literal translation as a safe—if not the safest—path to success while translating literature. But that’s food for thought for another post.
How about you? Do you think there’s a bright side to not knowing your interlocutor’s language? Do you ever listen to music in a language you don’t know at all?