The Unbearable Impossibility of Perfect Communication

In a powerful op-ed written for The New York Times back in late 2010, bestselling novelist Michael Cunningham writes, ‘I’ve come to understand that all literature is a product of translation’. He explains, and I quote the article at length:

I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation.

Cunningham is more perceptive than perhaps he admits to himself; he has learned to live without perfection. Translation isn’t perfect because no form of human communication–from speech to smoke signals–is perfect. As long as we cannot read each others’ minds, some amount of misunderstanding will always be inevitable. And so, seeking to transcend that unbridgeable gap between ‘you’ and ‘me’, ‘writer’ and ‘reader’, we promise ‘faithful’ translations of literary works.

To the same end, we also create new mediated communication technologies: radio, telephony, television, the Internet. Then we invest our hopes in them; witness AT&T’s slogan in the 1970s-80s ‘Reach out and touch someone’ or Blackberry’s much more recent, near-identical one, ‘Connect with everything you love in life’. Then there’s Google’s oft-stated mission to make all of the world’s knowledge universally available (and searchable through Google).

At first, we delight in the new opportunities these technologies provide. Wow, I might think, I can communicate near-instantaneously with friends and family half a world away! Imagine the transformative potential! Yet disappointment is inevitable; none of these new technologies invests us with true telepathic powers, and sometimes we feel even more estranged from our fellow human beings than we were before. And so the cycle repeats; we seek out newer and better technologies in which to invest our hopes, and we are again disappointed.

Anyone who has read the first volume of the Japanese science fiction novel series Kino no Tabi by Keiichi Sigsawa knows that reading each others’ minds is no panacea–and could in fact lead to a total breakdown of civil society. (After all, do we really want to know what everyone is really thinking all of the time?) In Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, 2001), John Durham Peters argues that we ought to worry less about communication with others and more about care of others. If perfect communication is not possible (or desirable), we ought to give more focussed attention to the ethical dimension of media and communication. However, that would require that we ask very different questions about our media-saturated age…and quite frankly, I don’t think we’re quite ready.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and Sociological Imagination’s Mediated Matters columnist.


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