Many people are familiar with The Little Prince, a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is superficially a children's tale but contains many ideas about love, identity, and spirituality, among others. I was first introduced to it in my high school German class as a reading assignment. I recall that one of my classmates later decided to read the English translation, and declared to me that it was better in German. When I myself decided to read it in English, I wholeheartedly agreed.
To this day I wonder why that was the case. Since the book was originally written in French, it could simply be that the German translation was better than the English. Or, perhaps German is somehow more suited for writing about such topics, in the same manner that Latin works well for law; language develops according to the needs of those who use it, after all, and many great philosophers were German.
But I frequently wonder whether it's simply that reading such a story in a language in which I'm not totally fluent added to the mystery which was such an integral part of the experience. Perhaps the limitations of my German abilities forced me to process my thoughts in a more childlike, innocent way that helped me appreciate the story's charm. It's impossible to separate all the different effects of reading in a different language, so maybe I'll never know. Even if I were to become fluent in German at some later time in my life and reread the book, I wouldn't know if any changes in my experience were due to the improvement in my language understanding or simply the passage of years.
Last month I went to a performance of Russian war songs by the noted baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I only had tickets as part of my subscription to the San Francisco Symphony and wasn't that excited about going (I'd never heard of the guy, and wasn't familiar with any of the works), but found it to be profoundly moving. Part of that was undoubtedly due to Hvorostovsky's artistic skills, but I think part of it was the fact that I didn't understand the Russian words. Even though there were printed translations in the program notes, my inability to comprehend the lyrics forced me to listen to the music on a more fundamental, primordial level. Though I don't like to put it this way, I wasn't "distracted" by the words.
The late great physicist Richard Feynman once described a conversation he had with an artist who claimed that scientists couldn't properly appreciate beauty, that they would take something like a flower and view it in terms of boring biological processes. Feynman's response was that on the contrary, a scientist could appreciate the flower's beauty on multiple levels, that he could understand not only the visual attractiveness but also the beauty of its atomic structure, and so on. At the time, I thought this was dead-on true, but now I'm not sure. There's no question in my mind that seeing too much in something can be distracting, like in that game where one has to identify the color of a word that is itself a color (GREEN, RED, YELLOW). Maybe the mystique of a foreign language is a manifestation of this same phenomenon. Maybe, sometimes, it's better not to understand too much.