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Friday, Feb. 23, 2024
The Observer

Found in translation

In Poland, they say good morning all day. Although I’m tempted to interpret various things from this quirk, I will control myself. My roommate, John, who visited his beloved Polish homeland annually, jokingly chalked it up to a lack of creativity.

It was actually breakfast time when I said “dzien dobry” to the man before me, standing in the house he had built with his own hands over the last half-century. John’s grandfather responded with a smile that could melt Atilla’s heart. “So you speak Polish now?”

I don’t. When traveling for a week or weekend, you can only learn enough of a new language to say things like “thank you” or “brother” or “fish sandwich.” Even as the sound of English chatter in every accent possible pervades more and more of the world, from cafés in Krakow to taxis in Istanbul, you can sense there is much lost in translation. The substitution of a lingua franca brings us closer, but there is something buried.

Though the English language is my first love, it is not my first tongue. I remember — if only because the story was told so many times — crying my eyes out at the prospect of going to kindergarten because I did not know English. Though I had been born on a hillside in San Francisco, my parents chose to only speak Hindustani with me, so that I might be bilingual, a legacy of the old world maintaining itself in the American melting pot. It was my mother’s firm belief that when the language goes, culture and identity follow. Studying in Ireland, the legacy of a language forcibly taken from its people presents daily reminders of the amputation of a vital organ.

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Legacies of linguistic imperialism: a road sign in Ireland's west featuring English and Irish language place names.


I spent my summer buried in research, all of which centered around a 1912 effort by two men (who would become Nobel laureates) and their work to translate a book of poems from Bengali to English. By translating the works to English, Tagore’s “Gitanjali” became known to audiences in every imaginable place; I saw letters in the MacMillan archive that came from places as far-flung as Mauritius, Armenia, Japan and Hungary.

Thinking about translation as much as I did, I spent much of my days in my head, attempting to translate my thoughts in Hindustani — the lyrics and verses that “reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there” — back to English. 

Take, for instance, my grandmother’s favorite 1980s Bollywood song. With the lyrics in mind, I did the long-division version of translation, not extracting the gist but going word for word. But of course, that does not work. 

“Quiet became city’s alleys, thorns became garden’s flowers,” is the closest one gets to English coherence without adding any words to one of the lyrics. 

The dark magic one experiences at the hearing of a garden’s flowers becoming thorns is lost, even in this sentence you are reading. This lyric has a universal meaning; others make no sense without being steeped in cultural context. I wonder if translation is ever truly possible. Some of my favorite poems will never be shared with most of my friends.

I think back to the frustration my siblings and I used to have at my father’s English, the way he always pronounced “clear” as “ki-leer,” and the way we would correct him endlessly to no avail. What we failed to register was that his mistakes were not made because of some insufficiency, but the navigation of two completely different grammars, alphabets and worlds. He was playing a new instrument having mastered a completely unrelated one. Having a foot on either side of an ocean is hard for anyone, even those who have mastered the splits.

Often, I feel words coming up my esophagus but stop before they reach my lips because there is no one to speak them to. My heart delights at the sight of a curry tent at which to speak my mother tongue, the caged bird within me taking flight. The language I carry cries out, needing to be spoken. I stand for much longer than I need to, asking them about Lahore or Delhi or how long they’ve been away from home and if they miss it.

Although language can serve as this fence around us, it is far from insurmountable. 

It was late in the night when John and I walked up to the kebab counter in Vienna. We could not speak German. The men behind the window could not speak English. Despite this, I was able to learn that the man opposite me was Kurdish, that his friend hailed from Syria, that “scharf” was German for spicy, that the words for numbers were strikingly similar in Hindi and Kurdish. I was able to hear his laugh, and he heard mine, requiring no interpreter.

This diversity of language deeply enriches us. On one of the many endless hours spent around the kitchen in my dorm at Trinity College Dublin, one of my housemates from South Africa read us Afrikaans insults. “Jou ma was nie genaai nie, jou pa het in haar poes gekak,” one of them went, eliciting an outrageous laughter few English jokes can, though reader discretion is advised before translating.

Language is what makes us human, in many ways. But it is not the end of our ability to connect with others. That’s why I can understand perfectly what my Spanish taxi driver is saying about the airport gates not letting him through, or grasp the gist of a Polish phone call my roommate has with his family. It is why watching a foreign film without subtitles is uncomfortable, but far from impossible. It is why an elderly Turkish man on the river perfectly sang a 1970s Bollywood standard to me this summer, without understanding any of it. It is a revelation to see another’s heart through language, but even more moving to see their heart in spite of it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.