Secret Codes

by Ben Perreira

In order for people to effectively communicate each other they need to speak a common language. Before you call your local university and tell them to award me a PhD for that groundbreaking statement, let me specify.

Imagine two men are trying to figure out what color soccer ball they should buy. Man A says to the Man B, “verde.” Because both speak some Spanish, it is understood that the ball will be green. The color green has been encoded into their minds as “green” and “verde,” respectively. Man B learned Spanish after learning English and he has learned that “verde” is a close approximation to “green” almost all of the time.

Colors are about as straightforward as it gets when it comes to encoding and decoding of information.

What about something more conceptual and less objective, like “dictatorship?” Even in English this is a complicated term. What we call a dictatorship could be considered a democracy by many (e.g. Venezuela under Chavez). The way a culture uses the word alters its meaning in subtle but potentially important ways, because when one attempts to translate it something will necessarily be lost.

(See my post from November 7 on words that have no translation) 

It is very difficult to translate emotions into symbols and it is amazing that we do as well as we do. When we translate those symbols (i.e words) into another language’s similar words but ones with their own usage history, we introduce even more bias into trying to figure out exactly what is going on between someone’s ears.