To Interpret

    <blockquote>“But you could not interpret me and I could not interpret you”</blockquote>
    <figcaption>(Indigo Girls, “I Believe In Love”, <i>Despite Our Differences</i>)</figcaption>

This lyric struck me, not because of its sadness, but because of how clearly the beauty of interpreting emanates from it.

Both characters in the song (“I” and “you”) speak English. They can parse each other's words. There is some level of understanding. But somehow they fail to interpret.

These characters fell in love already. They have enough understanding and connection that they really want to interpret each other's words and feelings.
It is already the third song in the album Despite Our Differences, which chronicles their love.

Different wordings, in my world, would weaken this lyric phrase.

Their phrase says not “understand”, but “interpret”. We each of us have different ways of thinking. Someone who translates from one spoken language to another is called an interpreter.

The speaker of one language is not “smarter” than the speaker of another – they just cannot interpret each other without help. An interpreter faces many nuanced decisions because languages have different assumptions, different ways of thinking within them (idioms, puns, and degree of genderedness, just to name a few). It is a process, more than just “oh now I understand you”.

Now, multiply language difficulties by ten to imagine sharing thoughts about emotion, politics, or desire. Even when they share a common language and probably grew up in the same corner of the world, they cannot fully interpret each other's words and patterns.

When two people are trying to be close to each other, there is another layer beyond just understanding. If I smile at your joke, I want you to feel appreciated for your joke, not just generally appreciated and not mistakenly appreciated for something else. If I ask for a backrub and get a kiss instead, well okay but communication is not working too well!

If we are partner dancing, it is possible to be compatible or incompatible even if we chat well and are smart and compassionate beings. It is about whether we can interpret each other, in that moment, in that way.

For its full meaning, the phrase is not just “We could not interpret each other”. It is important to say each part of the phrase, “you could not interpret me” and “I could not interpret you”.

In my life, sometimes I can interpret someone who cannot interpret me, or vice versa, or perhaps we can each make sense of a different part of the other one's experience. Computers, jobs, marriages, athleticism, empathy, emotional triggers – there are a million patterns. People come in different ages and sizes and mixes of experience. One cannot assume anything about who's able to sense what.

By saying “you could not interpret me and I could not interpret you” I acknowledge this, by not projecting my thoughts into your mind, or yours into mine. By acknowledging this, we stand a chance of discovering each of our truths. We are one step closer to untangling the world.

Sometimes other people can interpret me when I can't interpret myself. Perhaps they notice that I'm tensing up at some stimuli and I didn't even notice that pattern. I am grateful when other people share that knowledge with me – it feels like a gift, and sometimes like an intimate smile. I am grateful, too, that there are times that I have succeeded in giving such listening to someone else.

The lyric struck me, not because of its sadness, but because of how clearly the beauty of interpreting emanates from it.

This all is why I find it beautiful when I can interpret you, and you can interpret me, especially at the same time.