Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

The Paradox of Language

I was looking online for a new game to play with my grandson. The name of this game caught my eye: Fun Dispels Joy.

Umm, I’m not sure that this sobering caution was the intended message when someone translated the name of this child’s game. I can just see a three year old pointing excitedly to the game and begging mom or dad to get it, while the parent pauses to consider the deeper ramifications of light-hearted fun that blots out lasting joy like a total solar eclipse.

That got me to thinking about the challenges of communication, not only across different languages, but even among people speaking the same language. Are we really communicating what we think we are? Is it possible for my words to be understood exactly as I intend?

I had a friend once who was often very careless with his word choices. This led to some frustrating conversations. I would respond to something he said, thinking I understood, and he would correct me, insisting that his meaning was something else. When I would point out that his intended meaning was not consistent with the words he actually said, he would simply shrug off my objection by saying something like, “Well, I use those words to mean something different.” That would set me off, sputtering that you can’t just use words with your own secret meaning and expect anyone to understand.

Alas, I eventually came to admit that even for someone who uses words as precisely as possible, there is sometimes still a gap between what the speaker intends, and what the hearer understands. Furthermore, some things are not really communicable by words at all, or understandable by our thinking brains.

Years ago, I gathered various translations of the Dao De Jing with the intention of taking one chapter at a time and comparing the different interpretations. However, I quickly saw that this was not enough. I needed to go to the source. And so I began a journey into the original ancient Chinese text. It was like finding a door hidden in an overgrown hedge leading to a secret garden of unimaginable beauty.

The Chinese text flits like fireflies in that secret garden, defying analysis or intellectual understanding. It is poetic, with rhythm and music to delight the soul. The characters are cryptic, with multiple meanings swirling in fluid mystery. Trying to pin down a single meaning is like trying to catch with your bare hands a single slippery fish in a vast school of fish. Better to float in the water, watching the colorful fish dart and twirl. I quit trying to analyze and just immersed myself in the mystical experience.

Language is useful and necessary and can be beautiful. But perhaps we put too much pressure on words to do what they cannot do. They cannot substitute for direct experience or take our minds beyond the mind’s limits into deep mystery. The Dao De Jing admits this in its opening lines: The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. Nevertheless, following that confession of futility, the text goes on to talk about Dao for many pages! Words will always fail to convey our deepest meaning. Our aim, as Adyashanti says, is to fail well.

So I had a good chuckle over the unfortunate word choice in naming the game Fun Dispels Joy, and felt grateful for the reminder of the paradox of language.

Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation. ~Rumi

4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Language”

  1. I had to chuckle at the name of this game, Galen. It certainly illustrates how things can, and do, get lost in the translation. And I love the quote from Rumi – absolutely true!
    May we all choose to use our words thoughtfully and carefully.
    Blessings always!

    1. Thanks, Martha. There are so many funny examples of things that get confused in translation and end up conveying a very different message than the one intended. I’ve contributed to that a few times myself when trying to speak in another language.

  2. Oh i’m glad I tuned into this one, Galen :>) When I first began writing fiction I felt very aware of language far more than I’d ever been before. It can feel constraining sometimes, you’d think there would be enough words to choose from, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are seeking variety for the reader at the same time as getting across meaning, feelings, imagination, a sense of place etc You are constrained also by conventions in order to be more widely understood. And of course, with me, it’s really only one langauge I know. But I also know there are words in other languages that only have very approximate similarities to ‘mine’ and the meaning can really only be understood in that other language. Maybe this is a strong merit of the Dao De Jing, that the language is fluid and full of mystery to bring awareness of not being able to pin down the same meaning for everyone. I also love Rumi quote. Sometimes silence with expression, and just being connection between people can be far deeper than surface language. Cheers, Galen

    1. Your description of writing fiction reminded me of my professional life as a contracts attorney, which included drafting contracts. And then, as a law professor, I taught others how to draft contracts. I used to tell my students that they were NOT writing fiction — ha! Always use the same word to mean the same thing in a contract. A different word will be interpreted as intended to mean something else. The Dao De Jing comprises somewhere around 5,000 characters, but only about 800 different ones. Language is so fascinating. Thanks for commenting.

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