The Language-Emotion Connection

Once upon a time, my best friend, Joy, bought me a book just because she knew how much I’d love it. She had started reading it and immediately understood that it would captivate me. And because she knows me better than almost anybody, she was 100% correct. That novel was “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime”. Many years later, I took her to see the Broadway show for her birthday. It was equally amazing and it possessed the exact qualities that I needed it to capture from the book. I’ve spent some time thinking about this – the idea of one message being portrayed through multiple forms of media, or even multiple languages. What is essential to an effective translation?

I suppose I could start that discussion by asking a different question – what is the point of a good novel? Some would say entertainment, and I suppose, on some level that is true. But the way in which that novel entertains is by evoking emotion from the reader. When I write a story, I don’t really care if the words sound pretty, although I do strive for that as well. Words are selected solely to convey a message in the best possible way, and beautiful words go a long way towards that end. My goal is to write something that makes the reader feel. I could write beautiful flowing sentences, could use the largest vocabulary, could have the best grammar, but if nobody cares about my subject, I have failed as a writer.

For anyone who doesn’t know, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” is the story of an autistic boy named Christopher, who finds a dog dead and jumps headlong into solving the mystery despite his disability. In the course of this, Christopher learns many things about himself and his family’s secrets. The novel is written so you are told the story through the veil of Christopher’s mind. He thinks differently, sees the world differently, and so do we. The words work effectively to paint this picture. When this is translated into the form of a play, words are also used, but we are given several forms of visual and auditory stimuli to convey the differences in Christopher’s perception of the world. This is effective translation as we are left with the same feelings in the book as in the play format.

Words are tools in the art of literature, used to create a message, a feeling. That feeling – that is the thing that needs to be captured and transferred. That is the one thing that can’t be lost in translation. Whether it is in the process of transferring a piece from a textual to visual medium, or translating from one language to another, the most important thing that must be done is that we use our tools to create a message. And as long as that message endures, it really doesn’t matter what the delivery system is. As long as it evokes the same feeling within us, taps into that universal fact of humanity, the translator has done their job.

We don’t live in a closed society anymore. When we were children, my brother used to have a pen pal in Japan that he would exchange letters with and then wait weeks for a response. These days that is no longer necessary. We can send emails, sign on to chats, and accomplish that so much quicker. Websites translated via places like Smartling can connect potential customers with the proper businesses even if they are across the ocean from each other. Though our world is, geographically, a big place, and we speak thousands of languages, our global community is shrinking rapidly, because technology allows it – and translation facilitates that.

If the point of creation is to tap into a universal human experience, then it only stands to reason that the message be shared universally. The beauty in this idea that words are tools that create feeling is what it means for the spread of that message – with the proper translation, literature, and most any other medium, for that matter, can be reproduced for different audiences, can be spread far and wide for consumption. And isn’t that the most important thing?

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