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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy and Appreciated: It Starts with You. Part 4a.

By Rattus Scribus© 1 Nov 2009
Newcomers may read the previous parts of this series by clicking the links in the Blog Archive.

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."

Next: Mishearing.


Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Excellent, witty and beautifully written mon cher! This is making me think again about gestures and keeping my hands still and motionless!!! It is best to LISTEN and OBSERVE as well; perhaps the best among safety tips when you are not sure!!!! Moi

Fete et Fleur said...

I cannot tell you how many times I've misread things. This is a very thought provoking post for me. A good exhortation to slow down and make sure I clarify what I read, before I act on it.


Fete et Fleur said...

PS . . . You would think with all the PR America is doing in the world right now, we would be more careful with our hand gestures!!


Edie Marie's Attic said...

SA-VE... isn't that French??

Edie Marie's Attic said...

PS Great post Rubin!! I enjoyed it!

Bonnie said...

Dearest Rattus, another beautifully written and thought provoking post, sir.

When next in Boston pls get a cannoli for me. My Brooklyn godmother made the best cannoli's in the world!

Michelle Shaw said...

Excellent food for thought! I am having problems with a new person in my life and, based on my instinct, I know that something is wrong. However, this being will not tell me what I may have done to cause her to back away from me. I am wondering if she misread me or the other way around. How do you solve the problems associated with misreadings?

Marie Antionette said...

I too misunderstand alot of things,More now than ever since I had my TIA, but I try my best to understand and be understanding, which is very hard for me to do at anytime.Very informative post Dear... XXOO Marie Antionette
PS: Anita, I hope you understand that I'm just giving your hubby Friendly Hugs and Kisses...LOL

Rattus Scribus said...

Thanks so much to everyone for your kind words and observations.

Bonnie: I sure would like to have known your godmother, because the cannolis from Boston's North End are amazing, and if hers were even remotely better they must have been just divine, and nobody has the right be that lucky, LOL.

Marie: A dear colleague of mine just had a TIA, and has really slowed down, so you have my sincerest sympathy and prayers. Oh, and I'll take all the hugs I can get. Anita trusts us.

Michelle: I will assume that by "this being" you mean a human "being." I'm not making fun, but as I know you are a wonderful animal lover (as are we), your concern might be with an animal friend. (I don't want to misread you.) Assuming a human, there is no substitute for just asking if there's something you did wrong. (I find it is sometimes best to compose my thoughts briefly in writing so as to chose my words and tone I will use carefully) and even reach out initially by email as that can help as an icebreaker. We are talking about relationships here (more complicated than the mysteries of the DNA) so of course there's no guarantee what will work no matter how hard you try. But I do believe that your consistent character of kindness, regard, and honesty, and patience will win most people; my wonderful wife is proof enough of that to me.

Blessings to all you dear people,


Jacqueline said...

Hmmm...I just knew it! I went to therapy for this very subject and came out on the other end with eyes wide opened. Went in for help because I thought I was just one of those codependent folks and came out with a light bulb moment when the therapist said...Jacqueline..you do not like to be misunderstood! It's my major problem but I'm NOT GOING back to therapy for it. He's the one that misunderstood. However, Gretta understands exactly what I mean. The End.

Patricia Cabrera said...

Living and learning ...every day there is much to learn. What an interesting post. Thank you Rattus!

Debbie said...

I am a friend of Anita and Marie (Dancing in Tattered Shoes) ... and have been reading your posts and I really enjoy your writing. It's kind of like being in the classroom with a teacher who is exciting and interesting to listen to. I never had that experience in school ... a teacher that I enjoyed ... your blog is wonderful.

Debbie Nunez