It began with a story about a translation from Arabic to English gone haywire, as so many instant translations do. This story was a cobbled-together approximation for the benefit of a child who is almost but not quite bilingual. Or bilingual enough to communicate, but often misses the nuances, the stories built into the words. And the child in question responded with predictable confusion. For evidence of this, click the “see translation” button beneath any Facebook post in a foreign language. The road to translation is paved with good intentions.
One of the reasons translations fall short or fall apart is that the speaker of the first language may not realize how much information is missing about the meaning of the words she's been using her whole life until she tries to explain their meaning or reproduce them in another language.
Colloquial Palestinian and Syrian Arabic, for example, are filled with souvenirs of occupations past. Upon closer examination, many of the unusual words our grandmothers used have roots in English and French. To translate grandma, one must identify the regime that colonized the homeland during her childhood. My husband's Palestinian grandmother referred to a "Nahrsa" who took care of people when they were ill -- from the English word "nurse". My Syrian grandmother would ask us to bring her "il-eshaarp" if she was going to step into "es-sa-loan". Both words are from French, "l’echarpe" means scarf, which she used to cover her hair, and "es-salon" is from “le salon” referring to the sitting room where she would receive guests. Both were carried over into Arabic intact, with the simple addition of an article before the word, a hinge to connect it to the rest of the sentence.
The most fascinating words are ones I cannot decipher easily. "Hardabasht" is my favorite in this category. I think it might be a corruption of a Turkish word (but it could easily be Kurdish or Assyrian – I don’t have enough linguistic expertise to know) and in colloquial Arabic it’s used to suggest "haphazard" or "disorderly".
But not all the treasures of translation (and the opportunities for failure) reside in words borrowed from other languages. Sometimes the challenge is the sheer volume of information that a handful of words need to convey. The first time I unlocked one of these phrases on my own, I felt like I had put on goggles and was happily diving into the cerulean deep of a pool after years of blurry immersion. My mother’s friend was telling her about a relative she tried to avoid at family gatherings. The reason she gave was that the woman repeated stories of old betrayals over and over again. The phrase she used to describe this condition was “bet’eed u bteftuq.” The literal translation of these words is: “she repeats and rips.”
I understood the general meaning. But for some reason, the second word “rip” floated up to my ears on its own that day. And I thought about where it came from. That specific verb suggests “ripping a seam” or “undoing stitches.” The phrase is meant to evoke the image of someone hand-sewing stitches, then methodically (and by implication mindlessly) undoing them, only to sew them over again. The infinite loop par excellence. Could there be a more evocative description? I would definitely want to avoid that woman at family gatherings after realizing what those three words actually mean.
And in those three words lies the whisper of the poetic. The success of the image rests on one word. The perfect word. And the image relies on the line – the placement of the first word relative to the last word. She repeats and then rips. It’s noteworthy that she begins by “repeating.” That already tells us she’s been engaged in this activity for some time now, and sets us up not for the cathartic release of ripping the seams or pulling up the stitches. No, no such freedom is insight. Instead, we know she will go back over this same path again, because the word “repeat” was first. Words and Lines. The words in that line as a kind of snow-globe in which a silent scene played out. Translation lives in the heart of Poetry.
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