In ‘Arrival’, a language expert (Dr. Banks) requested to ask another ‘expert’ on the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ and its translation. The reply was ‘gravisti’, and that is means ‘an argument’. Banks explained that it literally means ‘a desire for more cows’. As the story is on communication with aliens, the nuances of translations can make a whole world of difference. An argument due to desire for more cows, due to greed and/or jealousy can lead to all out war. Language is only a useful as its subtleties (if any) used and understood. Otherwise, misinterpretation over a relatively mild conflict of desires could lead to an actual war! Bear in mind that words’ slippery meanings can change in time due to contemporary culture’s usage too.
Useful as language can be as a tool for communication, it can turn out to be a dangerous weapon for miscommunication if abused (with equivocal speech) and misunderstood (by lack of context) – be it accidentally or on purpose. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that our perception of reality is determined or altered by the language we use. Indeed, considering that the aliens wanted to ‘give weapon’, when they really meant to ‘give tool’. What more, weapons can be tools, and tools can be weapons. Right translation is all the more crucial when it comes to religious texts, which many devotees live and die by!
Banks also cited the case’ of Captain James Cook’s ship running aground off the coast of Australia, to reason that she needed more time to establish a common linguistic system for alien communication. Cook had led a party, and found its aboriginal people. A sailor pointed to the animals that hopped around with babies in their pouches, asking what they were. The Aborigines said ‘kangaroo’…. ‘It wasn’t until later that they learned that “kangaroo” means “I don’t understand”. So… I need this so that we don’t misinterpret things in there, otherwise it is going to take 10 times as long.’
As we know, the land was colonised later. Well, we would not want miscommunication leading to being conquered by superior lifeforms. It turned out that Banks’ story was not true, but it proved her point on the need of patience for accurate communication. Much as truth should be told, paradoxically, it is at times better told through fictitious examples. Interestingly, this reminds us that even the parables in scriptures need not be historically factual to speak of timeless truths. This principle applies to myths and fairy tales too.