Totally Lost in Translation

The power – and perils – of the job.  This edition published by New English Library 1972.  Cover illustration by Bruce Pennington.

The power – and perils – of the job. This edition published by New English Library 1972. Cover illustration by Bruce Pennington.

Wherever two civilizations speak different languages, the role of interpreters can be critical.  War or peace, trade or conflict – everything may depend on their competence in accurately and promptly translating what the other party says.

The conquistador Francisco Pizarro set off with two ships to explore the western coast of South America in March 1526, coming into contact for the first time with a vessel from the Peruvian civilization.  In his 2010 work The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V, Hugh Thomas describes how most of the men on that local vessel jumped into the ocean to avoid capture, but the Spaniards took three of them “to be trained as interpreters, the conquest of Mexico having taught Spaniards that a good interpreter is more valuable than 1,000 soldiers.”

It’s also perhaps a sad fact that members of races who consider themselves superior, or even as conquerors,  rarely bother to learn the languages of those they see as inferior, unless as a matter of academic anthropological interest.  They may think it beneath them to do so, or not a good use of their time when they have so many subject races to rule.  Professor Thomas observed that Spaniards did occasionally learn the languages of New World civilizations such as the Maya, but this appeared to be mainly to assist their own goals such as converting the natives to their religion.  The normal route has usually been to train selected individuals from the indigenous population as interpreters.

And the interpreter’s role is often not just a question of providing literal translation.  Adequate interpretation may well require an appreciation of meanings which may not be immediately obvious to those who are less aware of the subtleties of the spoken word.

In the (fortunately) fictional context of the 1964 film Fail Safe, the US President makes this all too clear to his hard-pressed interpreter who has the key function of relaying what the Soviet premier is saying over the telephone, in the hope of avoiding nuclear war: “You’ll translate what he says to me…but I want something more from you…sometimes there’s more in a man’s voice than in his words.  There are words in one language that don’t carry the same weight in another…I want to know not only what he’s saying, but what you think he’s feeling…”  A difficult task, and one that may be unlikely to be trusted to any computer-based translation programme for the foreseeable future.

All these factors may pose even more of a problem when, and if, humanity makes contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.  The respective positions and intentions of each side may be confusing, as in the 2016 film Arrival, and we certainly can’t assume that we will necessarily be the dominant party in the relationship.  Selected humans may provide the vital role of the interpreter.

In Brian Aldiss’ 1960 novel The Interpreter, Chief Interpreter Gary Towler provides this function for an alien race that has ruled Earth for two thousand years; he describes the rulers as “an enemy foolish and arrogant enough to refuse to learn their victim’s language”.  Initially welcomed by the inhabitants of Earth, it had all too soon become clear that a hugely dominant species, with many worlds already in its empire, was never likely to be little more than a slave-master.   But Towler’s role also puts him in a position to manipulate the information which comes his way to the advantage of the enslaved humans.  The danger comes in knowing where his loyalties should lie.

Needless to say, all this might be irrelevant if any intelligent extraterrestrials are not limited to mere verbal speech as we are.  Possibly some form of telepathy is the normal mode of communication in the cosmos, and avoids any need for interpretation.  But that could bring problems of its own.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

Be sociable; support the BIS!