Lost in Translation

How many fights, conflicts, wars have been waged throughout history simply from misunderstanding someone’s words?  What would the implications be for the seemingly constant conflicts in the world if a universal language were discovered or created?

The recently released film Arrival invites us to ponder these, and similar questions. But before we delve into deeper reflection, some context is in order.

In the film 12 monstrous pods containing extra-terrestrial beings land in 12 different locations across the globe. Each of the 12 nations in which a pod lands immediately channels all of its energy and brain-power into figuring out what these aliens are doing on earth. To achieve this goal, they bring in the best linguists they can find, in hope that these masters of language can communicate with the aliens.

At first, the task seems all but insurmountable. Yet, the situation is dire. The masses are in a frenzied panic, impatient for answers. So, each country is constantly connected, sharing with each other any type of valuable information the team of linguists, scientists and military leaders are able to glean from their communicative efforts. It is not long before they begin to breakdown the massive language barriers, due in no small part to their collaboration. But, just as the American linguist is on the verge of gaining control of the incredibly complex foreign language, leaders in China and Russia interpret the aliens’ as saying that they have come to Earth for weapons. The countries consequently go into a state of crisis, cutting off all communication with other foreign leaders, and begin the necessary preparations for launching a war on the aliens.

Right before the first missiles are to be launched, the American linguist has a breakthrough: the aliens are here not for weapons, they are here to share a tool, their language. As the American linguist peers into the future (she seems to develop this capacity through understanding the aliens’ language), she foresees this tool, this gift, as becoming a universal language, one that will unite nations all over the world, bringing presumably unprecedented peace and prosperity to the people of Earth.

As the movie came to a close, the story of The Tower of Babel ceaselessly ricocheted through my mind. In the story, set around the beginning of humanity, humans all speak the same language. This universally shared characteristic allows them to to build a colossal tower, truly an engineering splendor, that reaches high to the heavens. Upon seeing what humans have constructed, God says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” He then (for reasons not specified) confuses their language, forcing them all to speak in different tongues, thus dividing and dispersing them throughout all the land.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, why does God want to create barriers to humans working together? In Arrival, why do the aliens travel all the way through the depths of outer space to bring us the tool of a universal language? Are there any other human tools with more potential for unification or division than language?

In a world where communication is increasingly being reduced to 140 characters or less, we invite you to reflect for if but a moment on the immense power and importance of language. And we implore of any readers who have made it thus far to treat the words they utter and type with care and consideration.