Avatar: What's Lost (and Found) in Translation?

David Bellos: Avatar is a fantasy about sameness and difference.  The hero is a human being.  He's the emissary of a human mining company who is transformed by a fantasy scientific process into something else, into a native of this other planet, Pandora, where the creatures that live there have extraordinary skydiving skills and nine foot long tails.  So, his job is to infiltrate this other culture, this very other place, so as to feedback to his human controllers the information they need to pursue their mining project.

Our hero is one of us, transformed, and also one of them, and as the film proceeds, of course, these Pandorans are so beautiful and so elegant, and we’re led through the music and the colors and everything to feel immense sympathy, and our hero goes native and his sympathies also move toward the defense of their right to be different.  So it’s all very politically correct and it’s very well adjusted to the sensitivities of younger people and those who wish to preserve this planet as well as other planets, but we end up, or Cameron ends up, with this really interesting position, which he doesn’t close off quite at the end of the movie: is our hero one of them or is he one of us?

And it strikes me that, without realizing it, Cameron has produced a parable about all forms of human communication and most especially about translation because a translation, well, you take it from here and you put it in a new dress.  You give it the linguistic equivalent of a nine foot long tail.  It’s quite unrecognized—I mean, a translation is not recognizable as the original unless you speak both languages, which is rare.

The question is always asked when you have a translation, is it, in the end, what it was or is it something new?  Does it belong here or does it belong there?  At the end of Avatar, that fundamental question about translation is answered just with an eye that opens, and it doesn’t answer the question as to whether he is still a human or become a Pandoran or whether any movement between the two or sharing of the two is really possible.  

In the same same way I see the act of translating as itself a parable of the human condition because for something to be translatable, for translation to exist axiomatically, we have to assume that one language is not another.  If it were, we wouldn’t be translating.  We also have to assume axiomatically that it is possible to say the same thing in another language as it is possible to say in the language you start with.  

So this question of sameness and difference that the film Avatar plays with is intrinsic to the act of translating as well, and it’s intrinsic to what it means to be human: Anything I feel, you do not feel.  Our sense of self is discrete, is incommunicable in full with any other human being, and yet for us to have any kind of a relationship, for society to exist, for human life to exist, we also axiomatically have to assume that we share the same needs, the same general kinds of desires, the same kinds of thinking.  Otherwise we wouldn’t even be able to communicate. 

So it seems to me translation is that major thing that makes manifest this human condition of being both completely isolated and completely integrated at the same time. 


Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd


The world and workforce need wisdom. Why don’t universities teach it?

Universities claim to prepare students for the world. How many actually do it?

Photo: Take A Pix Media / Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
  • The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
  • These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
Keep reading Show less

Six-month-olds recognize (and like) when they’re being imitated

A new study may help us better understand how children build social cognition through caregiver interaction.

Personal Growth
  • Scientists speculate imitation helps develop social cognition in babies.
  • A new study out of Lund University shows that six-month-olds look and smile more at imitating adults.
  • Researchers hope the data will spur future studies to discover what role caregiver imitation plays in social cognition development.
  • Keep reading Show less

    New study connects cardiovascular exercise with improved memory

    Researchers at UT Southwestern noted a 47 percent increase in blood flow to regions associated with memory.

    Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at UT Southwestern observed a stark improvement in memory after cardiovascular exercise.
    • The year-long study included 30 seniors who all had some form of memory impairment.
    • The group of seniors that only stretched for a year did not fair as well in memory tests.
    Keep reading Show less

    What the world will look like in the year 250,002,018

    This is what the world will look like, 250 million years from now

    On Pangaea Proxima, Lagos will be north of New York, and Cape Town close to Mexico City
    Surprising Science

    To us humans, the shape and location of oceans and continents seems fixed. But that's only because our lives are so short.

    Keep reading Show less

    Learn a new language—super fast. Here’s how.

    According to a man that knows more than 20 languages, the key is to start in the middle.

    • Canadian polyglot Steve Kaufmann says there is indeed a fast track to learning a new language. It involves doubling down on your listening and reading.
    • By taking the focus off grammar rules that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to remember, you can instead develop habits by greater exposure to the language. Kaufmann likens the learning process to a hockey stick.
    • In the beginning you make major progress as you climb the steep hill of the hockey stick, whereas the long shaft of the stick is the difficult part. Because you're not seeing day-to-day changes, you might lose motivation. So, stay the course by consuming content that interests you.