The few lines in Part One from fashioningarchitecture‘s post contain a richness not seen in average everyday conversation. The metaphrasis that occurs during translation is such that a type of poetry of association occurs. As we swim through the language–in keeping with the previous metaphor of a fish–we not only feel the thick water passing over our fins, but we also feel from whence we came. We feel the ‘now’ water as well as the ‘then’ water. At the same time.
While it’s not time travel and not evidence of a soul, the use of the words now and then describe the physical act of translation that happens. We hear a Chinese phrase. If English is our first language, our first instinct when learning Chinese (or any new language, for that matter) is to translate everything heard to the original, the one we knew before, or English.
This phenomenon is perhaps extreme with Chinese and English. The grammar of both is exceptionally different. The pronunciations are more intricate in Chinese. There are ten different duns, for example. In English, we might just have ten different and entirely separate words.
One thing I’ve noticed about our English language is that having so many words creates a massive library of stored information and associations. This thing is a rock. This rock is granite. This granite is gray and brown. This gray is like the Long Island sound on a winter’s day crashing into Block Island. This brown is like the rich earth underneath the leaves in a forest.
This fish moves with the fluency of so many a tuna. Think of all those countless associations above and the millions of offspring associations they can and do all make. Then imagine multiplying that exponentially with a second language and all the dialects languages naturally beget. Not only does the form of the grammar shift, but also the nature of the associations.
I once watched the film Everything is Illuminated with a Russian sitting next to me. There are two languages in the film and much of the struggles Elijah Wood’s protagonist Jon-fen goes through have to do with things lost in translation. However, listening to the English, reading the subtitles (and their version of a translation), as well as having the benefit of a native Russian present to speak the English out loud was an immersion I will never forget. The Russian’s commentary on the poor translation was another level of filter that not all of us have access to every day in hearing another language.
This four-fold experience of language no. 1, language no. 2, the print (and established) translation of language no. 2 into language no. 1, and the oral translation of language no. 2 into language no. 1 imprinted the film into my mind as evidence of something I hadn’t noticed before. Even within my one language of English, this happens every day, no matter what the grammar mavens (Steven Pinker’s term) say.
Think of it within the context of moving as a kid. Especially if you moved from one language region to another. Imagine your surprise if you moved from South Carolina into the heart of New England’s language cradle (Boston). Trading one accent (markedly different and distinct even from other accents within the South) for another can be quite a culture shock.
Now imagine this same principle, this same feeling of ‘otherness’ as further enhanced by an entirely separate language with its own thousands of years of distinct evolution in descriptive subtlety and shift in accent.
Same feeling. Maximized effect. More variables. Total immersion in another culture.
Beijing, as the newest of the world’s capitals might be the perfect place, as a non-Chinese speaker to experience this phenomenology of language.
Look at the cliche, but French unwillingness to acknowledge foreigners in Paris (though they often speak English themselves). Are we becoming the same in NYC? Are servers going to start ignoring foreigners who make the attempt to learn our own elaborate tongue? Maybe if we start paying them more than 3.30 an hour.
I think the people in these environments will determine the parameters of their acceptance as well as their boundaries for the allowance of foreign tongues to ‘contaminate’ their own. One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the richness that follows a culture’s acceptance of the many.
Remaining stagnant or gaining the attribute of bigotry in a world that is becoming ever-more global and increasingly infused with more dialects, both hybridized and pure, may not be an intelligent choice. If the nature of language is fluid, then this pond should remain murkish.
It has been said the vulgate of the Roman Empire was a form of French. Perhaps the true legacy of Empires is the languages of its peoples. The most honest forms of exchange and the purest makers of culture and ideas are happening all around us in the streets. With the words we choose to speak and to share, we consciously participate in the formation of something greater than ourselves.
After cities have dissolved. After buildings become skeletons, stories will still be exchanged by some distant and future campfire. Even if we mutate beyond the necessity for an oral tradition, the language of the people will remain the most honest.
The vulgate will be the most beautiful then as it is now. I only hope we enjoy the language of the #rightnow in the present tense.