By Rattus Scribus© 1 Nov 2009
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Rule #4a: Don't get lost in translation: misreading.
Wisdom, peace, harmony, love, these words have been pondered by sages, debated by pundits, depicted by artists, immortalized by poets. But I suppose if I had to narrow down to one thing that prevents us from truly experiencing these most desirable qualities, it would be misunderstanding: those times when thinking and acting in good faith are not enough, and we fail to comprehend persons, places, times and events.
First of all we must note that to misunderstand -- to get lost in translation -- is not a sin. It is not the same as to deceive, evade, obfuscate, misinform, misrepresent, trick, betray, con, cheat, dupe, or otherwise fail to act in good faith in communication, relationships and endeavors. Nevertheless, while getting lost in translation is not a sin, it still has consequences. Sometimes it can result in the stuff of comedy; but at other times it can rival or surpass the saddest of Greek or Shakespearean tragedies.
I want to talk about three inter-related ways of misunderstanding or getting lost in translation: misreading, mishearing, and misinterpreting. In this post, I will focus on misreading.
The stuff of comedy: "Sa - ve Bova Bakery"
When Anita and I used to live in Massachusetts, on one of our many excursions to Boston's "North End," with its wonderful Italian shops, restaurants, and bakeries, I noticed a sign at the top of a corner building that read: "Save Bova Bakery." I looked at Anita and asked: "What does 'Sa - ve Bova Bakery' mean?" She burst into laughter: "Not, sa -ve (two syllables)! Save, rescue Bova Bakery!"
To this day I have no idea why Bova's Bakery was going under, or if it still even exists. All that was lost in translation. I could try and defend myself by saying that my intermediate-level knowledge of ecclesiastical Latin, and the cultural awareness that I was in an Italian community, caused me to draw the perfectly logical conclusion that I was reading something exotic. But the truth is, I was looking for something that wasn't there and I just misread the thing.
The result was hilarity (at least for my wife), and to this day, whenever we are witness to a humorous misreading of any kind, we look at each other and say: "Sa - ve Bova Bakery."
The stuff of tragedy
However, not all misreadings have happy endings. As an historian of Christianity, I could recount to you story after story of misreadings, which, when joined as usual by its evil twin, misinterpretation, have resulted in tragedies enough to make the angels weep. Devotees of the Judeo-Christian scriptures have misread "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) as permission to pillage and destroy the environment, ignoring the fact that we are supposed to be stewards commissioned to "take care of" the earth (Genesis 2:15).
Catholics and Protestants both misread certain Bible passages (e.g., Joshua 10:12-13; Psalm 19:1-6) and condemned as a "heretic" the Italian astronomer Galileo for scientifically proving that the earth revolved around the sun instead of being at the center of the universe.
Christianity is certainly not alone among the world's religions in such tragic misreadings. Millerites (Adventists), Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Peoples Temple, and Branch Davidians, are but a few examples of religious groups that have at one time or another misread texts, misread current events, misread their own human nature. The followers of William Miller awaited a prophesied end that did not come, resulting, as you can imagine, in the "great disappointment," all the more so as they had previously given away their homes and other possessions. Mormon founder Joseph Smith sought to establish polygny (no, that's not a misspelling) in America based on precedent found in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Christian Old Testament), but later Mormons rescinded concubinage in order to secure statehood for "Utah territory." Charles T. Russell predicted an apocalyptic period of tribulation, and that people should prepare for it by buying his exorbitantly priced "miracle wheat." The end did not come then either, but that did not stop the new religion, Jehovah's Witnesses, from raking in the converts.
But these were all lucky; at least they lived. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple surrendered their wills and "drank the koolaid": over 900 died that day in 1978, the largest mass suicide in history. Apocalyptic followers of David "Yahweh" Koresh engaged in a 51 day standoff against the ATF and FBI in 1993 at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas that ended in the death of 82 members, including Koresh. It is an understatement of the greatest magnitude to say that religious misreadings can have tragic consequences.
The stuff of needless confusion and ill
Misreadings also occur between people and cultures. Linguists, cultural anthropologists, and communication experts tell us that many verbal and non-verbal forms of communication that we Americans think of as positive are actually offensive and insulting to other cultures.
Patting a child on the head may be a gesture of affection to us, but an insult to Asian Buddhists who believe the head is the repository of the soul.
Forming a circle with the thumb and index finger of the hand means "OK," "good to go," or "terrific," to Americans, but in places like France it means "zero" or "worthless." In Brazil or Germany it is a blatantly obscene gesture.
And our "thumbs-up" gesture means "good" or "well-done," but in most of Latin America, the Middle East, West Africa, Russia, Greece, and parts of Italy, it is the insulting sign for "sit on it."
Many a tale has been told depicting needless tragic misreadings between people. Shakespeare's play "King Lear" is a case study in the tragic consequences of misreading people and circumstances. Marriages have been sundered when couples misread each other. Kindness can be misread as weakness; a positive outlook misread as blissful ignorance; heavenly-mindedness misread as being "no earthly good"; challenge and exhortation misread as "holier than thou"; discipline misread as meanness; critical questioning misread as unpatriotic; diplomacy as cowardice; no as yes (comments ladies?); ad infinitum.
Misreadings have resulted in comedy as well as needless tragedy. In the hopes of reducing the latter, I therefore leave us all for now with an important safety tip: learn to read.
I know that I, for one, can certainly improve my reading skills. "Sa - ve Bova Bakery."