Lost in Translation

What language do you dream in? I mean, people frequently talk about languages they speak or understand, but to understand how people think, to understand how people understand, I think you have to know the language that people use in their heads. The language they think in and dream in.

And it’s not enough to say, “I speak English,” because there are a lot of different Englishes.  That is to say, there are several English dialects, and each has certain subtleties of syntax, and that can make a big difference in how you think and see the world.

For example, in British English, when people have a problem that they’ve fixed, they often say that they’ve got it sorted (as in sorted out). In American English, we’re more likely to say we’ve worked it out, or taken care of it. It might sound like the same thing, but there’s a subtle difference. Sorting implies putting things in order – putting everything in its place. Working something out implies a mindset in the doer. Taking care of something implies a level of attention. And these are all in the same language with the same general syntax and sentence structure.

When I was little, I was under the impression that languages had a one-for-one word equivalency. I was told that bonjour meant “hello” in French and I thought that it literally meant, “hello.”  While bonjour is a greeting, it literally means “good day,”  In French (and in many languages), the greeting is dependent upon the time of day.

I was told, when I was small, that shalom meant “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace” in Hebrew.  Not so much.  It does mean peace…sort of. It means peace – but it really means wholeness. It’s the peace of God’s wholeness. It doesn’t fully translate. And it’s used as the general salutation when meeting and parting. It’s best left untranslated.

And that brings me to my point. Some things just don’t translate. Eventually we learn that when we learn another language we have to learn a whole new syntax, a whole new way of thinking. It’s a bit mind-blowing.

I’ve been translating Hebrew for a few years now. Specifically, I’ve been translating Hebrew Bible. The syntax is interesting. Yoda speaks Hebrew (in case you didn’t know). Most sentences are structured in Yoda-speak — verb, subject, object or verb, object, subject. Structured in Yoda-speak  are most sentences.  If this order is changed – if, for example, a noun or pronoun begins the sentence, that’s a clue that the noun or pronoun is really important. Also, pronouns aren’t, strictly speaking, necessary in Hebrew. They’re incorporated into the verbs. So if a pronoun is used on its own, that’s for emphasis.

In English, when we want to emphasize a word, we often say “very.”  Go very fast. In Hebrew, a way to add emphasis is to repeat the verb in a certain form. So it would be like saying Go fast fast!  It gets the point across, even if you translate it literally, but the imagery is different.

After a while translating Hebrew, I began to understand that my people (that would be the Jews – but even American Jews – the people I grew up with), tend to use some vestiges of Hebrew syntax, even in English. I’m comfortable translating the Hebrew, (ok, well, as comfortable as I’ve gotten in any language that isn’t English) because I’m comfortable in they syntax. I’m comfortable in the thought process.  It’s an embodied language. The word for anger is the same word as nose. The word for strength is the same word as arm. But more than that, there is a tendency to say, for example, May you be for a blessing in the book of life.  This is absolutely a Hebrew sentence structure. I’ve been hearing people say things like this all my life.

It’s not enough to know what the words mean, although that’s a start. You have to be able to understand how the words get put together and what the colloquialisms are. How we put the words together – and what the words are –  inform how we think. What would the world look like if we all made just a little more effort to understand each other?

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.  Shalom (that would be God’s wholeness) to you.

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