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Tower of Babeling: What's Lost in Translation

Anne Dalke's picture
When I left on this sabbatical, friend of mine, who is generally more even-tempered than I am, gave me as a good-bye gift and traveling companion a small statue of Buddha, along with materials for setting up a small altar and incense. It hasn't done much good. My moods -- always variable -- have been extreme on this trip. I swing sharply from the conviction that I am living in an nightmare -- when will I ever have a hot shower, sleep in a comfortable bed, eat comforting food, talk comfortably with friends again? -- and the pleasures and poignant awarenesses that this is the adventure of a lifetime, going exploring into places I don't know.

How very far I am from what I know was brought home sharply to me yesterday morning, when I asked my teacher to tell me something about the students who study here @ Universal de Idiomas in San Jose, Costa Rica. She surprised me by saying that the majority of them are men from the United States who have come here to learn Spanish--in order to engage in traffic with the prostitutes who hang out @ the hotel and park on the corner nearby.

This got me to thinking about the possible relationships between tourism, sex tourism and sexual traffic (all on a sharp rise in Costa Rica during the past ten years) and language schools (ditto). How much of the study abroad experience is one of looking for an exchange with 'the other,' for a 'rite of passage' that involves some sort of encounter with someone who is exotically different? How much do the language schools, with their invitation into recreation and escape, facilitate those sorts of encounters? How much translation really happens, in such situations? What's involved, after all, in the process of translation?

One of my colleagues @ Bryn Mawr, Alison Cook-Sather, has written a book about education as a process of translation; in the liminal space she traces, every learner is both the translator and the subject of her own translation. Education, in Alison's book (and classes!) is not a fixed set of connections between ideas and individuals, but rather a process of continual and evolving change, of new relationships mediated by the process of learning and the learner.

How much of that can happen in language schools like those I've been attending in Central America? Alison arrived @ the argument of her book while learning German and living in Germany a few years ago. My own experience of living and studying Spanish in Guatemala and Costa Rica for three months now has led me to a slightly different conclusion, one I take from Margaret Peden, translator of the Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda:

...given sufficient words, anything spoken or written in one language can be explained in a second. I am less sanguine about the possibility that everything can be translated. I have myself talked and written about a contemporary Tower of Babel, one in which the inexactness of understanding is the continuing motive for conversation: it is because we don't precisely "get" one another that we must keep on talking. The goal here is less to say what we know than to invite others to explain what they are thinking/feeling/experiencing....knowing that the "translation" will always be inexact.

We have this experience every night in the hostel where we are staying in San Jose: our conversations (in halting-and-hilarious Spanish) with a Japanese economist and French journalist (to take just last night's example), range from comparative analyses of the production of sugar in the Phillipines and Costa Rica, to comparative pricing of tranquil hotels on the Pacific Coast. At this point in our language acquisition, we can always identify the theme of the oration; whether we ever get the punch line -- did he live or did he die -- is still an open question.

In one of my classes earlier this week, we were reviewing the use of idioms, including "caer bien" and "caer mal," that is, what pleases or displeases one). My teacher said, "Ana, digeme, ¿'Qué clase de personas te caen mal?" I said (well, tried to say, in Spanish) that I didn't like thinking in terms of types, and preferred not to answer a question that asked me to. Two other students in the class (young German women, whose mastery of Spanish grammar is quite remarkable) kept trying to help me out by translating the question for me: "She means 'types of people,' 'kinds of people.''" Of course I understood the question; what I was refusing was its terms. And of course it's precisely this sort of conversation that I find most difficult to negotiate in my haltingly-acquired second language.

On the other hand, each day is filled with wonderful "lapsus," made possible by the inexactness of translation. For instance, today, the query "¿Como estas?" misapprehended as "¿Como molestas?" ("how are you?" misheard as "what is bothering you?" with the inaccurate-but-nonetheless-present English residue of "what is 'molesting' you...)

It becomes clearer and clearer to me, the further I get into this experience, that the shaping of meaning belongs to me alone. For instance, I was disappointed in the Meeting for Worship we attended @ Friends' Center last Sunday morning; I was expecting (in my interior life, this means hoping for) an urban meeting, conducted in Spanish. But all the Latin American Quakers had gathered in Monteverde that morning, and we were reduced to one attender from Ohio, one visitor from England, and ourselves, two Philadelphia Quakers. It felt centerless...til I realized that a meeting is always centerless until one centers. If there was to be a center, it needed to come from us.


admin's picture

It strikes me from your description(s) supporting the conclusion that "the shaping of meaning belongs to me alone" that a) it's an enormous undertaking, starting from birth and throughout life, to shape meaning for oneself, and b) the enormity and difficulties of that undertaking explain why many people (most people?) opt to latch on to pre-packaged meanings rather than do the spade work of formulating their own. What I'm thinking of here is the ease of just buying an already-formed, no-assembly-required ideology and calling it your own. These pre-packaged ideologies are available everywhere -- political ones (left and right, so to speak!), religious doctrines, workplace-related, cultural and social -- just pick one out, try it on, and it's your's, for a price. Is it a new phenomenon? No, I don't think so. But what seems to be new is that there is now a marketplace of ideologies, much more explicitly than ever before. Or is it that a 21st century western brain now perceives the marketplace aspect of it all?

Good journeys,

Shaye's picture

"Silence is ever-speaking; it is a perennial flow of language. It is interrupted by human speaking. These words obstruct that mute language." --Sri Ramana Maharshi
Anonymous's picture

My name is Pili and I’m a Spanish girl. I’m 20 years old and I’m studing Fine Arts at the University of Salamanca. I’d like to be a painter. I like to go to “tapear” (to a Spanish bar, you know) go to some parties, but specially I like to travel around the world. Last year I studied in USA, when I met my friend Lucy. She is studing Spanish there. I write a spoken diary for her and for all of you. You can visit me every week in and download a free podcast. ¡Learning Spanish is easy with me! I recommend you to listen the first podcast to understand the diary. see you!!!
Costa Rica Hotels's picture

It really saddens me to hear that most people going to Costa Rica to learn Spanish are also looking for drugs and for prostitution. I mean, with all beauty in Costa Rica, why would you just try to destroy other country's youth by supporting those practices? Costa Rican youth needs a break. Jenn