In translation

Reading life closely


The experience of attending a Greek Orthodox Easter celebration cannot be put into words. At least, not into English ones.

Describing the setting is easy: shouts of joy and friendly banter sound among the citrus trees in my great-uncle’s massive garden. Grapes swing from a wooden lattice above a table set for 50, blown either by the wind or by the waves of conversation. The overwhelming smell is of these same grapes and of their fermented cousins in bottles and glasses below them. Everyone is family, even when they aren’t.

But I’m missing something. With half-Greek blood and an incomplete knowledge of the language and the Church, I have always felt that this experience is deeper to my fully-Greek relatives than it is to me. That beneath the wine and the tradition there’s another layer I haven’t peeled back, and probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. I feel a lack of cultural memory. I sense a deeper significance that, filtered through my own limited experience, has lost some of its clarity. It’s being just slightly out of the loop when “the loop” is my heritage.

My own culture often feels clumsily translated to my language, like a foreign novel written for an audience I cannot fully join.

When it comes to such novels, this metaphor becomes quite literal for me. Whether slogging through Constance Garnett’s way-too-British translation of Dostoyevsky or reading Rainer Rilke’s translated work and noticing that, unlike the English version, the German has a rhyme scheme, the reader of foreign literature often feels lost. It is no mistake that Vladimir Nabokov, who translated his own story “A Guide to Berlin” into English, decided to add facial scarring to his protagonist, but only in the English version. It was not to disparage his own translation, but to note its imperfections — to acknowledge that an experience must be changed when its language is changed. I don’t usually miss entire chunks of information when I read these stories in my own tongue, but I get the sense that my language doesn’t hold their souls correctly.

I also get this sense from many of the personal narratives I interact with daily, whether reading the newspaper or listening to people with experiences different from mine. My views into the lives of others are always translated; they have packed their experiences into language for the sake of communication but, often, the deepest parts of their stories are the parts I cannot grasp.

This, I think, is the nature of everyone’s story. We can describe the grapes hanging from the lattice, but cannot pin down the culture breathing beneath them.

This fact of language and experience is very important to address when dealing with cultural narratives. Too often I find myself applying the Basic English Major analysis to the stories of people with cultures and identities different from my own. Assuming that their words are merely words, and that I can cut to the heart of their experiences if I simply read closely enough.

But I am becoming increasingly skeptical of this urge to analyze the lives of others through my own experience. Though I believe that my intentions are good, I often find myself unable to grasp the roots of the stories I’m told. In my pursuit of understanding, I fall instead to generalizing, seeking to understand cultures rather than to appreciate their complexities. The people around me become books on a shelf, kept distant and sorted conveniently by genre.

This mindset is as comfortable as it is toxic. For me, it’s an act of intellectual arrogance. An obsession with a vision of myself as “Official Interpreter,” capable of providing insight into anything at a moment’s notice. And, like most comfortable mindsets, it has been very difficult to change.

The key, for me, can be found in another feature of literature — the translator’s note. That short little introduction before a foreign novel that details the difficulties of translation and clears up some areas of potential confusion. These notes provide a direct line into the original text, and offer up the ghosts of the experiences that my English brain is missing out on.

I find an equivalence between these translator’s notes and conversations I have had with close friends of different backgrounds. When tackling issues of culture and identity, there is a tension between the substance of their experience and the clumsy container of language. Something doesn’t quite translate. But outside the world of novels, these difficulties of communication usually don’t come pre-packaged before the story begins.

To uncover them, it takes attention, empathy and the right questions. Not questions like “why does your family act this way?” or “what’s the point of believing in that?” but questions like “which parts won’t I get?”

Experiences are often untranslatable, but that’s probably what makes them human.

Anthony writes the Monday column on literature and life. Contact him at [email protected].

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