Lost in Translation

I once spent a week at youth hostel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I met a big bearded Greek man named Nikos. He and I seemed to stumble into good conversations almost every time we opened our mouths. Nikos was adept at English, but one evening he was trying to make a point, and he couldn’t find the English word for it. “Yes, yes, you see, it’s all about…about…hold on.” He grabbed his Greek/English dictionary and scanned his index finger over the pages. “Yes, it’s all about passion!” he declared.

A few days later we were having a very different conversation, and Nikos was again caught at a linguistic impasse. “That’s such a good example of…of,” he paused, grabbing the book, “of…passion.” This time around he was a little less enthusiastic about his find.

Finally, the next day, we were smack in the middle of more kismet when he turned to find the English translation for the word in Greek he wished to express and once again found “passion,” which he uttered with much less, um, passion. “This English of yours is not so great,” he explained. “You see, those three ideas were three entirely different words in Greek, and they each had an important meaning. In English, it all gets mushed together into one word. I’m glad I have my Greek!”

Nikos’ point was valid, and I can think of other great words that don’t translate neatly into English: duende in Spanish, schadenfreude in German, and ubuntu in Zulu would all need at least a sentence in English to convey what they mean. In such cases, English’s motto seems to be, “When in doubt, appropriate” — Webster’s is littered with words that derive from other languages; we can thank the French for debonair and ennui and the Yiddish for kvetch and shtick, just to name a few.

Interestingly, many countries have fought against importing English into their native languages because so many of the words creeping in are commercial in nature. Say “prime time” or “talk show” in Paris and watch for scowls. But still, I’d make a case for a few English words: how many languages have a term for the last little bit of food left intentionally on the plate? That would be ort. How about “fond of using maxims in a way that is ponderously trite?” Hello sententious. It’s also hard to beat the word jaunty.  Doesn’t it just sound right? I’m also a big fan of panoply.

The truth is, all languages are inherently imperfect. I see the spectrum of light refracted by rain in the sky and say “rainbow,” and you understand, though that label can hardly capture the infinite associations we each have with that particular phenomenon. Any word is shorthand for something that is, if it were to be fully expressed, utterly unique, and thus, in a word, ineffable. In the face of complex concepts, experiences, or emotions, sometimes words do fail, regardless of the particular language that contains them.

It’s also true that all languages evolve through their contact with other tongues. What’s wrong with a free trade of words? I should have asked Nikos for those three different Greek varietals of passion and integrated them into my lexicon at least. In South Africa, Afrikaans is a good example of a rich melange, even with its checkered racial past. Its root is Dutch, but as Dutch settlers in Cape Town interacted with the indigenous Khoisan people, French Huguenot settlers, and the thousands of slaves the Dutch brought in from countries such as Malaysia, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, the language became a hodgepodge of dialects. To this day, Afrikaans is notorious in South Africa as the best language to swear in. Its phrase for “Get lost!” (Voetsek!) is so effective in scaring off dogs that I still use the phrase to intimidate suspect canines, even when they are North Carolina natives.

Kids are wonderful innovators of language and seem to have no problem mixing and melding for maximum effect. Years ago Rio decided that except and besides were so interchangeable that it was easier to just use becept. I’ve been tempted to call this evolution and use the word. And to this day, we still refer to Rio’s favorite fruit as strawbabies, relishing rather than correcting that particular malapropism. Now that he’s starting to write phonetically, his linguistic inventions are growing exponentially. My favorite right now is how he writes was as ouz. I didn’t know he’d already been influenced by the French oui.

Alone in the City

Once a year I go on a solo retreat to write, walk, and collect myself. For the past four years I’ve gone to a rustic cedar cabin nestled in the foothills of western North Carolina. The closest town is a twenty-minute drive away, and the cabin is beautifully crafted and sparsely decorated. What initially drew me to the place was the lack of media in it. I always bring my big box of writing, incense, candles, books, and good food to cook. I only leave this cabin in Saluda to hike or walk around the tiny town for a brief spell.

This year, I yearned to go in a different direction. I was feeling beach not mountains, east not west, big city not quiet spot. Annie had just returned from a trip to California where she’d worked and seen friends and family in San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. I wanted a little dose of the juke and sizzle.

And so I found a nice apartment in downtown Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the polar opposite of my mountain pad: smack in the middle of the city; big television with cable and a DVD player; WiFi access; walking distance to a load of clubs and restaurants. Sure I’d write!

Being alone in a strange city offers a particular brand of alienation. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by people for two nights and two days, I spent almost the entire weekend without really talking with anyone. I tried, initiating conversations with a homeless guy, several bartenders, the book-store cashier, the pizza server, a mother and her two toddlers. I was friendly but not desperate, I thought, although I did mention that I was from out of town in hope that it might prompt a follow-up question. Instead I received only cursory words in return — nothing rude, but nothing forthcoming either. At times I felt like the man alone at the restaurant with sad eyes. At times I was the man alone at the restaurant with sad eyes.

I needed an open face, some kind of porch light to beckon me in. Instead just those damn polite smiles. If only I were back in Saluda, where there was no possibility of connecting with anything other than myself and the trees. Instead I was in a city where I resided on the margins, a single man amid a sea of chattering compatriots. I could smell community but not penetrate it, and I yearned for the cabin’s silent balcony. The closest I got to companionship was watching some old favorites on television — at least I knew those people.

I woke up Saturday resolved to dig in. I walked down to the boardwalk beside the river and wrote notes about everything I sensed around me: the smell of sulfur in the coastal air; the rusty barges inching along the Cape Fear River; the rag-tag circle of kitchen helpers smoking cigarettes outside the restaurant; the drunk guy telling his friend “you are the only person in the world I respect.”  I was jotting all this down when I heard a message: a gray-haired man with a hiker’s physique walked by with his adult daughter and said, “Any way that one can discern the present.” That swatch of truth catapulted me out of my fugue and into staying on the saddle of the weekend even if the ride felt alienating and arduous.

And so I jumped in my car and drove straight to the beach, where I laid out my towel and sunbathed along with the hundreds of people whose skin met the warm sun after months under sweaters. I’ve seen men alone at beaches my whole life, and, despite the fact that I was overjoyed to be lying with my face toward the sky, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was that guy.

For lunch I grabbed some fish tacos at a crowded Mexican restaurant. Across the narrow street was a shirtless, weathered, pot-bellied man sitting on a bench beside his bicycle. He had a handsome, craggy face, like someone who’s smiled a lot in the sun. He looked jolly but a bit beaten down. His eyes were sharp, though, and they were taking in everything that passed: bikini-clad girls, cops on bikes, sports cars revving their engines. I wasn’t sure if he was observing or leering.

But then Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote came to mind: “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Who was I to know whether this man had found his own sweet spot right there on the bustling streets of Wrightsville Beach? How did I know he was lonely and defeated? The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that he spent two years sitting on park benches in a state of intense joy, realizing that all life’s majesties were available to him right then, right there.

Just then, some young hippies came and sat next to the old beachcomber and started talking with him, and he got very animated as he pointed to his bike and gestured widely toward the beach in front of him and the town behind him, almost as if to signal the extent of his domain. Then they left, and he suddenly looked right at me. I felt the chill of being caught, almost like the scene in Rear Window where Jimmy Stewart gets spotted from across the way by the murderer. But then the man gave me the slightest nod of his head, like he knew we were brethren.


I was raised fairly agnostic in Los Angeles, but I remember going with my grandparents to Catholic Mass every Sunday when my sister and I would spend the summer with them in Connecticut. I was perplexed by the “Lamb of God” imagery, and I tired from shifting from sitting to standing to kneeling so many times.  But I also remember the way my grandfather, normally taciturn and reserved, would gruffly sing along with all the hymns. I liked dropping coins in the basket as it was passed down the row but was jealous of the people who stood in line for Eucharist because I was usually hungry. My favorite part of the ceremony was when we turned to our neighbors, stuck out our hands and said, “May peace be with you.”

I started talking to God after this — nothing major, not with much faith or vigor, but once in a while I’d shout when I needed something. But then there came the day when I asked and he didn’t show up. I was nine, and my parents were getting divorced. My father had moved out, our house was on the market, and we were living in limbo. I was feeling lonely, dispirited, and I wanted my friend Greg to come over. I called him but got a busy signal. For some reason playing with Greg seemed like the most important thing in the universe. God, please let Greg’s phone ring and let him answer and please let his parents say yes! I called: busy. I repeated this three more times and then said to God: If you don’t make him get off the phone this time, I’ll never speak with you again!

The subsequent busy signal sealed the deal.

I spent the next two decades proudly godless, relying on my own will power and abilities to make things happen. I looked down on people who hadn’t figured out the folly of giving up so much power to some holy force. But then I started to notice phenomena like deja vu and coincidences and thinking about someone just seconds before they walked into a room. When my friend Vince and I backpacked through southern Africa, we began seeing conspiracies of confluences sprouting up everywhere, from the backs of Malawian buses to the sides of Zimbabwe highways to the porches of Tanzanian youth hostels. Vince and I started calling such moments of connectivity “HP,” for higher power. (Later I discovered this term was common shorthand for God in twelve-step meetings, but at the time Vince and I thought we’d invented it.)

As I got older, I saw that my own self-will was not as potent and steadfast as I had come to believe. When it would falter, or come up against forces greater than it, I realized I could either drown alone or throw my hand up for help. I began to understand that “higher power” wasn’t a stingy overlord nor a haphazard genie who sprinkled good fortune. Rather, it was an animate force I could engage, one that resided much closer to my own imperfect heart than I’d realized previously. I began asking for aid and assistance more readily, and thus stumbled into prayer — the act of saying “I cannot do it alone” invited the holy in.

So when Rio asked me last night, unannounced, over casserole, “What is God?” I knew I had quite a task cut out for me.

“God is . . . love,” I replied. “You know how you felt when you were sick last week and you kept nuzzling into that warm spot under Mama’s arms? I’d call that God. And remember how we told you that when your grandfathers died their spirit lived on in the flowers and the rivers and the trees? Well, that’s God too.”

“And what about Jesus Christ?”


“What about him?”

“Well I know what happened to him!” Rio responded, jumping off his chair to act out the scene. “These guys didn’t like him so they made this cross and they used a hammer and nails and they stuck those through his wrists and ankles and he bled and died.” He squinched his face a little. “Why did they do that to him?”

“He was brave and he fought for justice, and he believed in helping people, and not being greedy,” I explained. “Some people didn’t like that. He was a great and important person. And so were others like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Bob Marley and Harriet Tubman. Some people think Jesus sticks out over all the rest, but I don’t think so. They say he is the son of God. I don’t think he was the son of God — I think we all are. I think we all have God in us.”

“So God’s inside you?


“And me? Is God inside me?”

“Yes, my love. Yes.”

Sorry About That

When I lived in Johannesburg, I was struck by South Africans’ tendency to apologize for occurrences that weren’t their fault. Early on I remember walking along a sidewalk and stubbing my toe against a root that was bursting through the cement. “Sorry, sorry,” the friend I was with said.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked. “You didn’t do it.”

“I know,” my friend replied. “I’m just sorry that that happened to your toe.”

Thus my introduction to what I now call the South African Sorry.

I grew up equating an apology with an admission of guilt. In the charged arenas of family dramas, school popularity contests, and romantic relationships, I would hold back sorrys until I was good and sure something was my fault. And when I felt wronged, I’d often take someone else’s apology as evidence that I was in the right. It always felt like the supreme gotcha.

The South African Sorry was different; it implied no guilt necessarily; just an acknowledgment of pain.

These different approaches to contrition stem in part from the varied ways people and cultures approach the individual versus the collective. The United States surely must be the capital of I; sometimes I feel like I’m moving among a mass of people who are each trapped in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that other people are actually fellow humans that compose a “we.” I fall prey to this as much as anyone; I often think, If everyone takes care of themselves, individually, we’d have a pretty good collective meld going on. Take care of your shit, and I’ll take care of mine. In this context, there is no need to apologize for anything unless it stems from one’s actions as an individual.

In contrast, in a more collective culture, which South Africa arguably is, despite its dark history of apartheid, it’d be fitting to apologize simply because a misfortune occurred in your midst — the collective has taken a hit, and it’s only sensible that witnesses to that would express sympathy. A friend once told me that she still harbors painful memories from childhood of tripping or banging her shin and no one in her large family offering any words of comfort. She wanted to know someone had noticed her misfortune.

I suspect America’s litigious culture also plays a role. Because lawsuits are so common and courtroom dramas have populated our screens for decades, I wonder sometimes if we go through our days subconsciously perceiving our interactions almost like court cases. We don’t want anybody to “have” anything on us; a record of an apology might just be used against us someday.

In the big picture, it’s not surprising that South Africa followed the end of apartheid with its extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established to help heal rather than assign blame: victims of politically motivated (read racial) crimes were able to tell their painful stories, and perpetrators of such crimes were invited to come clean on their transgressions.  The commission traveled around the country and was broadcast on national television. It was an imperfect process, but there were many powerful moments: former president F.W. de Klerk apologizing for apartheid; chairperson Archbishop Desmond Tutu weeping uncontrollably at the words of a former Robben Island prisoner describing his torture in the hands of security officers; a white policeman apologizing to a distraught African woman for killing her son. I’d never seen anything like it.

The only U.S. equivalent I’m aware of is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help that North Carolina city heal from the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, in which five African Americans protesters were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during a political rally. As the Commission came to a close in 2006, the Reverend Peter Storey, a South African who participated in both reconciliation commissions, concluded, “So long as the darker events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”

This resonates to me on a personal level;  I have found that apologizing, even for events that were only partially my fault, addresses that which was festering, both in me and in the other person. It also serves to acknowledge someone else’s pain. Most importantly, when I issue a South African Sorry, I undermine my own ego, which loves to keep appearances of perfection up. With him off the scene, I’m able to feel fallible, which is exactly where compassion and empathy live.


When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.

“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.

“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.'”

“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”


“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”

Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”

At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know.  (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.

My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.

I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world.  It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.

Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.

In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as  “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”

One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill.  I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”

Tender Shoots

On the way to the bridge I saw a man trailblazing for a yellow daffodil. As I got closer, I saw that he’d handed it to a woman he was walking beside.

“I guess he goes the extra mile for your love, huh?” I said as my son Rio darted by on his bike.

“He knows how to win a girl’s heart,” she replied.

“What’s that you got?” Rio asked.

“It’s a daffodil,” she said. “Want to smell it?”

Rio took a big whiff and announced, “It smells like a peach!”

The man smelled it and nodded to his wife: “It does!”

Rio and I left them to go watch the muddy water roar below and to see a great blue heron make gawky graceful.

When we walked back to his bicycle later, we found the yellow daffodil lying artfully across the seat.