Gained in Translation

(Okay, so it turns out, I miss you people. And I’m sure there’s an election or two I could say something about, or a crashing economy on which I could offer some commentary from my completely economically-challenged brain, but at this point, trying to think about those questions just adds up to brain freeze. So I’m gonna talk about words).

But what I see is the millions of people, of whom I am just one, made orphans: no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground, no excess of love which might lead to the things that an excess of love sometimes brings, and worst and most painful of all, no tongue. (For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?…

Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place (31)

First of all, read that book. It’s one of the shortest novels I’ve ever read, the quickest novels I’ve ever read, and the most powerful novels I’ve ever read. It hurt. A lot.The inner linguist in me having officially be re-awakened, of all the affecting passages in there, however, the above is the one I just can’t shake out of my head.

It occurs to me that on the surface, there is something a little bit contradictory about the fact that those of us who care about language death also tend to believe very strongly that listening to the stories of the oppressed, the colonized, the othered is a major part of progress. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to read that novel if it weren’t in one of three colonizing European languages, and while obviously my (individual or white English collective) ability to read something is pretty far down the list of reasons it needs to be expressed, I do think that it’s important that I hear it. The fact that the privileged need to listen is not news. The value of creating space in which to speak about things that have long gone suppressed/unspoken/ignored is not in dispute.

I happen to think bi- or multilingualism in individuals is a damn good thing, so of course, the revitalization of Aboriginal languages doesn’t preclude these kinds of words from being spoken in English as well as in Cree (or Dene, or…). And I’m not really sure why this particular thought has never quite occurred to me, but I’m also realizing just now that I think translation is a good thing. We talk all the time about concepts being lost in translation, thoughts that just don’t come out right when filtered through another language. Misunderstandings and frustrations ensue, comedic potential abounds. Translation is confusing, translation is imperfect, translation is hard work, translation is costly.

Which is why it’s a good thing. I mean, when something is translated, I think at least we recognize the imperfections of our ability to understand its original connotations. We can (ideally) appreciate the limitations of what we’re receiving. One of the first things my Applied Anthro prof said in our course was that communication is probably the hardest thing that we (both as academics and as human beings) do, and I’ve always been well aware that most people take it for granted far too much. If we think we’re speaking the same language, if you assume the words I’m using mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and if you get frustrated and upset with me when you find that they don’t, then we haven’t even started communicating.

If we know we’re in translation, if we’re accepting that we’re going to miss something, and if we’re at least trying our best to patiently tease out what we can understand of the real meaning, then maybe we can get somewhere. Again, I’m writing this from the angle of the privileged, and I fully recognize that the priority of decolonization in general/language revitalization specifically has nothing to do with my/our ability to understand. It just occurs to me that if we’re speaking different languages, at least we know we’re speaking different languages, and we can work from there.


3 thoughts on “Gained in Translation

  1. tanaudel says:

    Thanks for writing this post – the importance of language and communication and translation is so messy and problematic and marvelous.

  2. hysperia says:

    Wow. This will have me thinking for awhile. I do so love Jamaica Kincaid and will go back to her books for some hope.

  3. kisekileia says:

    Thank you for giving me a really good reason for language preservation, one I didn’t think of before.

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