oisin thomas
Oisín Thomas

Translating into Learnings

4 min read

When I find an interesting piece of writing or a powerful passage, my first inclination tends to be to translate. Perhaps it’s the part-language degree (an Ghaeilge abu!) or my fascination with Japanese, but when I see a perfect distillation of knowledge, I just can’t help myself but think: what would that look like in…? And I doubt I’m the only person who feels this way; though, perhaps stranger is how I tend to follow through more often than not. So much so, it is now part of how I learn new ideas.

I see translation as another kind of notetaking. There are times where I find that each sentence teaches me something about what I am reading – that the whole idea needs each and every one of its parts and where any short-hand renders the idea short too. What that leaves one with is something great to read admittedly, but to truly understand an idea they always tell us to play with it: to actively recall and reconstruct and simplify (see the Feynman Technique). Translation allows you to do just that.

Translation is more than just a parlour trick. Indeed, it’s all about preserving information in a new environment. One must actively pull together the words, phrases, and concepts together – often in a completely new structure – to achieve the same idea. Some people think that the hardest part of translation is finding the right words and phrases in the target language. However, the real challenge for translators is understanding the meaning of the text completely. Through translation you are actively seeking equivalence in meaning, and in doing so, much like how the author had to build the idea, you are tasked with rebuilding the idea – and you need to understand to do that.

Though understanding is not the prerequisite. Indeed, if you fully understand, you are likely not going ot find the piece novel enough to explore it further, unless you are doing it for work. By translating, you are acknowledging you may not understand yet, but you want to understand by the end.

It is not dissimilar to the idea of Copying the Masters that was popular amongst artists. In doing it, you learn to see the formation of the piece and the idea, you learn new techniques of expression and come to understand why decisions were made in how it was all constructed. Much like this piece that came out of translatingThe Need to Read” by Paul Graham, you may find that through translating ideas, you may see new ideas for yourself and ask new questions.

Translation isn’t just suited to natural languages like French or German, but also to programming languages. There is a lot of value to be found asking questions like, how would this look if written in OOP, or functionally or perhaps in a different language completely? In the case of programming languages, you get the added benefit of meaning being reduced to outputs.

Once the idea in encapsulated well in one language or system, it is ripe for translation into another. This is where studying formal languages comes in, and this is where we will talk about a particularly interesting concept called an isomorphism. This can be defined as “a relation of two systems, based on the established one-to-one (bidirectional) correspondence between them. The relation of isomorphism is reflexive, symmetric and transitive”. This is the gold standard for translation – one that doesn’t make allowances for a lack of faithfulness or artistic embellishment. Reflexivity, symmetry and transitivity call on the translator to above all preserve all meaning from the source text in the translation. Isn’t that exactly what complete understanding of an idea calls for?

Though, of course, language is more complicated than that, with issues of sociolinguistics, culture and heritage or – in the case of programming languages – a lack of modules and restrictive syntax meaning challenges in preserving metaphors or similes, methods or i/o blocking, for instance. Nevertheless, it is at these perceived limits of expression that we come face-to-face with challenge of understanding the idea.

This all takes time. And sometimes, we won’t succeed, or we will run out of time. But, in our success or failure to construct an isomorphism through our translation, we learn more about the idea, about the language and its community and ultimately about ourselves.