Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Untranslatable

I have been involved in Karate at various points in my life, and I've been involved in the SCA for five years now, so there are some things that I have done on a fairly regular basis that most people don't; and I don't give this a lot of thought, it is just a part of who I am. But something came up in my class today that really made me stop and think about the difference in experience that I've had. I came to a realization.

I would estimate that roughly 75-80 percent of Americans will never seriously, in the entirety of their lives, ever bow to another person. Conversely that number is 0 percent of Thais (at least in Thailand) who will never bow to another person.

Now the second part of that is fairly obvious; Thailand is in Asia, and for various reasons and in various different forms people bow to one another. But the first number really kind of shocked me to just how vast the difference is.

The issue that brought this up was one of translation. It was Thai Mother's day on August 12th, Mother's day being celebrated on Queen Sirikit's birthday. I made the students, as I am want to do, write about what they did on the holiday with their Mothers. Two of the students, sister and brother Millie and Best, needed to say that they did something. The word was 'Glaab', or some less idiotic spelling thereof, and we eventually decided on the word prostrate.

To Glaab is to ritually prostrate one's self before another person. You go down on your knees and wai (the Thai greeting involving hands together as if in prayer at face level with a bow) all the way down to the floor. You do it a different number of times depending on who you are doing it to. One for another person, three for a monk or the King. Prostrate is a decent word, but at least to me it doesn't have the same effect really. Prostration is something you do once, not multiple times. And kowtow, while originally likely the exact same (at least in the original Chinese we bastardized it from) has now come to mean an act of appeasement (and a somewhat degrading one).

It made me think a lot about the gap between experiences, and also about the challenges posed by cross-lingual communication (and teaching). There are words that literally have no meaning in other languages, words that are so psychologically linked to the culture that they come from that they cannot be translated to another culture let alone another tongue.

Like all good moments of philosophy, I was reminded of the West Wing, in a Season Five episode. The President is asked if he knows the Korean word 'Han', and comes to the following conclusion about the word: ""There is no literal English translation. It's a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there's hope."

It amazes me that anyone ever learns another language, when our languages and our cultures and our psyches are so loaded with these traps and dark corners that we cannot even comprehend of a way to share. How is it we can teach one another when we have so many things about ourselves we can hardly put in to words?

It is a humbling thought. The world spins quickly around us, and what keeps it spinning is the medium of language. Wars are fought and averted, won and lost or avoided altogether, with words that represent the thoughts behind them. I read recently in the book Among the Righteous that the author was baffled to find a Muslim friend of his who supported Israel's right to exist but hated Zionism. Because to her, and to her culture, Zionism meant differently than a belief in the right of Jews to a homeland. To her, because of where she came from and her culture, Zionism was a form of racism involving the systematic persecution of Arabs by Jews.

How can we ever hope to come to a table and find common ground with one another in all of the dark places where conflict rises when we cannot even agree on the meaning of words, let alone these ephemeral cultural concepts locked away in our collective cultural psyches?

If you thought I was going to have an answer at the end of this I am afraid you are going to be in for a long bout of han. Perhaps the only answer is the one we have been trying for so long. To keep trying, to be undoubted, to never give so fully into the despair at the distance between us that you lose that point of hope that spites it.


  1. Dear Matthew,

    Good post. You are to be congratulated for avoiding the use of the word inscrutable in your discussion of the subtly untranslatable.

    The West Wing reference is priceless, and a reminder of how fabulous Sorkin's dialog could be. As always, your essays educate, entertain, and delight. Not a bad trifecta.

    Keep it for the book.



  2. Well said Uji. I as per usual thuroughly enjoyed this post.

  3. Thoughts from Helene
    Add to the musings that learning and internalizing another language is only the very first tentative step to understanding another culture -- complete fluency is perhaps 1 or 2%. If you have started dreaming in Thai or can't remember which language you spoke when recalling a conversation then you approach fluency. Thoughts form differently in another language and we see the world through our language - the words we have shape what we are able to see. What we see creates the words we have. Eskimo languages have many different words for snow because it dominates their world. America in my youth was very, very ethnocentric. Our world view was supported by our dominate one language system. Will our culture strengthen or shatter as more and more languages brought by new immigrant groups integrate into our society? Greeley & Fort Morgan have become centers for groups of Somalian refugees and the Karen refugees - once again the meat industry becomes a melting pot.
    Did society create the 'languages' of the beatniks, the hippies, the Bronx, east LA, Black English when mainstream 1950's English become too homogeneous and boring? Did we need to create new words to be able to think new thoughts or vice versa? We are what we speak. When you speak more you become more.
    [Once a language teacher, always a language teacher!]


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