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.