My Life Untranslated

The Secret Adventures of an ESL Teacher in NYC

Why the title of my blog?

It’s a smell, a moment, a memory. Hand gestures, facial expressions, jokes.

So much of our lives are expressed in ways that cannot be put into translatable words or expressions. Anthony Burgess once said,

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.

My husband makes me so aware of this all the time, not just because English is his third language and there are moments of total miscommunication or lost humor, but because so much of who he is is often explained in cliches and phrases so unique not just to his first language, but his region and even his city. Example:

Arrieros somos y en el camino, cuadramos las cargas.“* I don’t know of an idiom in English to fully express what this means — perhaps “we’ll take things as they come”– but even if I could, the full cultural context would be lost. And this phrase seems to describe his philosophy on life, love and marriage. Imagine that.

There are so many times when talking to someone who’s first language is not English, or when I’m trying to speak in a language not originally my own, that I find there are so many things that just cannot be translated accurately. My sarcasm is only one of them…. Those subtle, context-reliant meanings that native speakers (usually) instinctively “know” about their language. And I think about how hard it must be to be a child and be trying to learn and advance academically in your second language and not even be fully conscious of these lingual transgressions, leaps, and difficulties so that when they do occur, the frustration and confusion must be so grand and yet so intangible. Well, as an ESL teacher and as someone who has her heart set on becoming fluent in more than one other foreign language, I felt this title describes so much of what my everyday life is like. Attempting, constantly, to find new and old words to explain things often impossible to put into words, and then trying to make sense of it through others’ languages as well.

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Rough translation: My husband is from a valley city and the arrieros were the “movers” if you will, who took people’s belongings from city to city, across daring mountain peaks on mules – if you owned it, it went on somebody’s or something’s back and made it to its destination. And, along the way, they would fix whatever they needed to, to make sure nothing fell and they kept going where they intended and needed to go.

Some people would be able to easily think of an English idiom to explain the gist of this. But my heart grows full with the imagery and the textures of the culture that quote comes from that simply cannot be translated — especially not in a simple, “I just want to get my point across” kind of conversation. Life untranslated.

p.s

You might notice some of my own “word transgressions”. I make up words, hyphenate marginally-relatable ideas, creating my own phrases, etc. Blame Joss Whedon.

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