Lost in Translation

Posted: October 7, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By James Baltrum, English Faculty. 

            “Uno, dos, tres, Cuatro… Cinco, seis. siete, ocho… Nueve, diez, once, doce… nos cantamos otra vez.” This is a song that Loretta, my five year old daughter, has learned in kindergarten and has been singing pretty much nonstop ever since: in the car, at dinner, during her bath, in aisle seven of the grocery store… Repetitiveness aside, I very much enjoy the ubiquity of it. My wife is bilingual, and having known her since we were in high school together, it’s not exactly uncommon for her to throw an English sentence at me followed closely by a lobbed Spanish one right afterwards. Often, my wife switches to speaking Spanish, sometimes mid-thought, when she wants me to know something that no one else within ear shot is to know. None of this, though, is to say that I’m comfortable with foreign languages. My wife, for example, might toss a simple-enough sentence my way, perhaps a question: “¿qué quieres para la cena?” and I then grapple with the few words I recognize, wrestle some context out of the situation, and answer, palms sweaty and always in English, “what sort of leftovers do we have” or “let’s go out tonight” or “huh?”


James Baltrum?

And, yes, this is with my wife. Imagine then my discomfort when tussling with the foreign tongue of a stranger. A few summers ago, a paletero, an ice cream vendor, began appearing in our neighborhood, pushing his heavy cart along the sidewalks and ringing his bells irregularly. Within moments of hearing the jingling, I always find my children bolting out the door and across the yard and my right hand reaching back for my wallet while I play catch-up. “¡Hola!” I greeted him the first time he came down our block. “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” he asked. “Bien. Gracias… y tú?” I responded. Mnemonically, I was wading into the shallow end of my high school Spanish days with Senora Stopka. The water was tepid, but my feet were firmly planted on a solid bottom. “Bien… ¿Qué te gustaría?” he asked. Water levels raising… no life guard on duty. “Um… Un helado… de chocolate… tres, por favor.” Upon retrieving three chocolate ice cream cones, he took my money and said in a tone that leaned far closer to indifferent than it did to impressed, “Sabes… tu español no es tan malo,” (meaning “You know, your Spanish is not too bad”). Deep end! Deep end! Abyss ahead! I blinked, rapidly. Then I grappled, wrestled, and explained, “mi esposa… is una… maestra… de Español… y una… Mexicana,” which, simply translated, means, “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican…” but when listened to with a more exacting ear, one hears something more along the lines of “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican and I feel awkward and apologetic for my culturally cataract-infested eyesight and marrow-deep Anglo-Saxon-ness…” The paletero simply nodded and smiled while I took my change, and my kids began the work of getting as many chocolate-flavored stains on their clothes as humanly possible in the short distance between our sidewalk and the front door.

I am, indeed, horrifically self-conscious about my ineptitude when it comes to learning languages, and my thump-my-head and kick-myself mentality only gets exacerbated by the eye-widening awe I feel when overhearing a foreign language spoken in conversation. They seem so earthy yet so liquid. I simply love the sound of certain languages! Spanish, when coming out of a more confident mouth than mine, is a beautiful language: warm, energetic and playful, almost ticklish to the ear. I can also recall hearing Arabic for the first time, sitting in the family room of one of my oldest friend’s, Shabbir, and listening to him talk with his grandparents in the other room, and thinking I should have a blanket and picnic basket with me – the rapidity of it, the sizzle and pop of the words; I felt like I was enjoying a fireworks show! I’ve always loved the sound of the French language as well. In college, Mike, a friend of mine who is fluent in French, attempted, sadly and unsuccessfully, to teach me some conversational phrases. In sharing a desk with me and realizing my linguistic limitations, his lessons quickly devolved into simple vocabulary, teaching me the French word for anything within sight: glasses (lunettes), pen (stylo), book (livre). So, if I ever find myself wanting to get a near-sighted French author to autograph a copy of his or her novel, then I’m in luck. Otherwise, as with Spanish, I’m lingually lost, dragged under by the riptide. I hold nothing against the language though; I still admire it, finding it more and more beautiful each time I happen across in crowded places. In fact, if by some chance development, scientists discover a spot on the electromagnetic spectrum, maybe between infrared and radar or perhaps just west of gamma rays, where languages visually register and can be seen issuing forth from the voice box, I imagine the French language looking like the unfurling of silken, multi-colored ribbons, each more vibrant and translucent than the last. English, on the other hand, often times stumbles off the tongue and conjures up images amounting to a generous mouthful of gravel, and not the high quality Home Depot landscaping-grade grit either but more like aged, abandoned parking lot rubble, freckled with flecks of tire rubber, cigarette ash, and more than a little dog shit.

I know that all of this should leave me feeling frustrated, perhaps isolated and depressed – cut off from worlds within worlds (or rather words) due to my myopic linguistic limitations, and sometimes my mind moves in these directions, but more often than not, I chose to look at it from a completely different perspective, one of wonderment. We can decide to face things that are new, different, or otherwise unknown to us with fear or anger or rejection. We can be satisfied in what we know as all we need to know and discard anything that doesn’t fit in that design. Or… we can instead take them as keyholes affording us a peak into rooms that remind us how much of the world is still available to us to explore. I appreciate being faced with such reminders from time to time, and for that I say thanks, gracias, dank, grazie, merci…


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