Monday, September 14, 2015

On Not Knowing a Language

A former advisor recently posted this to Facebook.  It describes the debate over the migrant crisis in the Czech Republic.  The headline reads, "Human Rights Watch says Czech debate on migration would cause an uproar if understood in the West".  My advisor notes, "This is exactly what translation is for."  I'll let you read the article for yourself.  Article Summary: Hungary is not the only country in the European Union led by fucking psychos indulging the racism of its citizens.

I have three thoughts on this:

1.  Yes, this is what translation is for.  We need to know about political debates in other countries, particularly when they enter horrible territories.

2.  When I first came to Eastern Europe ten years ago, I made friends with many people who spoke English as a second language (of course).  Many of these people expressed ideas that on the face of it, sounded outright bigoted.  I got to hang out in a dorm in Timasoara, Romania for a few days.  Over drinks one night, they asked me if I had any questions about their country.  I waded right into the water.  "Yes.  I heard a lot of people complaining about gypsies.  Why?"  Answer: "Yeah, Hitler and Stalin didn't kill enough of them."  I decided to give that girl the benefit of the doubt and assume something got lost in translation.  After so many years, I'm not so willing.

My point is that at least some of these politicians will be more than happy to tell you horrible things in English if you let them.  You may also end up betraying your baser emotions when you speak a language over which you don't have as much command, in which you have less access to euphemisms.

3. When I was in Spanish class in middle school, we learned not only a G-rated Spanish, but also a Spanish in which every model conversation was polite.  This carried on through high school.  Eventually, we did read some real literature, but there were some ideas that our Spanish classes did not expose us to.  We never learned the Spanish of Franco or Pinochet.  We weren't sheltered.  We learned about the monsters of the 20th century in our history classes, but in our language classes we never learned quite how such monsters might have sounded in their original languages.

I have been learning Serbo-Croatian for the past few years, and I have had some wonderful teachers who have exposed me to the "dirtier" sides of their language.  I'm not talking about four-letter words.  My tutor over the summer showed me nationalist Facebook posts.  Another teacher designed a lesson based on a very cynical description of a Serbian family.  As you learn the language, you start touching on the more subtle ways the language can express unpleasant thoughts.  You start to hear evil in a different accent.

When we say that another language is another country, we don't just mean that it includes the languages of great writers (although the cities of Eastern Europe are populated with statues of writers who have never been translated into English), or different senses of humor, but also of different methods of expressing evil.

What's the one Turkish writer you've heard of?  I know.  I know.  Orhan Pamuk.  You have no doubt read his brave condemnation of his country's murder of Armenians and Kurds.  Most of what you know about Turkey, about its culture, and perhaps the nature of its bigoted citizens comes from reading Orhan Pamuk.  There's a vast difference between reading the bigoted ideas of Turks speaking the Turkish language filtered through an English translation of a great writer's book and hearing those bigoted ideas expressed by Turkish people on the street speaking Turkish.

A translation of those Czech politicians would certainly lead to an outcry in Western Europe.  Their ideas may sound even more terrifying in English than they do in Czech.  They may be even worse in the original Czech.  Unless you speak Czech, you'll never know.

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