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Reading Translations Makes You Smarter

Well, OK, that’s not exactly what’s implied in these passages from Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, but both of these studies are very interesting and point to a oft-underplayed reason for “why translations matter,” namely that things outside of your mental comfort zone spark creativity and other cognitive abilities:

Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara asked subjects to read two modified versions of “The Country Doctor,” a strange, dreamlike short story by Franz Kafka. “A seriously ill man was waiting for me in a village ten miles distant,” begins the story. “A severe snowstorm filled the space between him and me.” The doctor has no horse, but when he goes to the stable, it’s warm and there’s a horsey scent. A belligerent groom hauls himself out of the muck and offers to help the doctor. The groom calls two horses and attempts to rap the doctor’s maid, while the doctor is whisked to the patient’s house in a snowy instant. And that’s just the beginning—the weirdness escalates. The story concludes with a series of non sequiturs and a cryptic aphorism: “Once one responds to a false alarm on the night bell, there’s no making it good again—not ever.”

The Kafka-inspired version of the story includes meaning threats—incomprehensible events that threaten readers’ expectations about the world and shake their confidence in their ability to understand. But the researchers also prepared another version of the story with a much more conventional narrative, complete with a happily-ever-after ending and appropriate, cartoony illustrations. The mysteries and odd occurrences are explained. After reading one version or the other, the study’s participants were asked to switch tasks and identify patterns in a set of numbers. The group that read the version adopted from Kafka did nearly twice as well—a dramatic increase in the ability to identify and acquire new patterns. “The key to our study is that our participants were surprised by the series of unexpected events, and they had no way to make sense of them,” Proulx wrote. “Hence, they strived to make sense of something else.”

It makes some degree of logical sense that this sort of “mental challenge” (in contrast to watching the “least objectionable program” on TV), would stir things up and stimulate your brain in various ways. And although extrapolating from a study like this and applying it to culture at large is silly, this does lay a foundation for an argument that it’s vitally important to support the publication of a wide-range of books—so-called experimental literature, translations, challenging poetry, etc.—and that it’s important to read outside of your comfort zone.

Hers’s the other interesting example from the same chapter:

As it turns out, being around people and ideas unlike oneself is one of the best ways to cultivate this sense of open-mindedness and wide categories. Psychologies Charlan Nemetha nd Julianne Kwan discovered that bilinguists are more creative than monolinguists—perhaps because they have to get used to the proposition that things can be viewed in several different ways. Even forty-five minutes of exposure to a different culture can boost creativity: When a group of American students was shown a slideshow about China as opposed to one about the United States, their scores on several creativity tests went up. In companies, the people who interface with multiple different units tend to be greater sources of innovation than people who interface only with their own. While nobody knows for certain what causes this effect, it’s likely that foreign ideas help us break open our categories.

In other words, Michael Henry Heim—who knows more than a dozen languages—must be incredibly creative (I know him, and he is!), and a great way to open up your thinking and expand your creativity is by subscribing to Open Letter. I believe that is the larger message here.



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