Lost in Cross-Translation

Featured image – a piece by Minal Wickrematunge at Colomboscope 2015: Shadow Scenes


For my O Levels? 8 A’s.
But what did you not get an A for?
English.

You need to be able to speak English for this job, can you manage that?
A little English, okay.
I’m sorry, that’s not enough.

Try telling me?
No, my English is not good.
Just give it a try, it’ll help you.
Promise you won’t laugh?
Of course I won’t, you don’t laugh at my terrible Sinhala, do you?

The man who has travelled far and wide into the depths of this little island, seeking to hear the voices of those who get easily lost in the tide of hierarchy and pretention, who is rich with knowledge of both happy and painful lives that the common man leads.
Ashamed to talk to the city slickers higher on the food chain because while his grasp of Sinhala and Tamil is flawless, English slows him down.

The lady who has seen the worst of the war – sacrificed her sons to the cause and her daughters to the conflict – yet is trying to rebuild her life from the ground up, working her old and tired hands every day she might know a semblance of the life she once had.
Robbed of the wealth she managed to salvage because the man from the bank, who spoke no Tamil, made her sign a form that was printed in English.

The school in the heart of capital city, heralding the achievements of its talented students on a proud banner flying near the main gate.
Sinhala, Tamil, Science, Maths, History, Religion, Geography – pass rates of 100%
Only 99% for English, yet they are regarded – and regard themselves – as something less than a first class institution.

You climb onto a pedestal that lets you literally talk down to your fellow man. Mock him for his inability to understand your supposedly high-flown tongue. To the point that some are even made to feel alien in their own land; a country that celebrates independence but still worships the other and the ground they walk on. Where English gets you respect and service but the use of your own language in the wrong place gets you looks of disdain, a second-class human in the land of your birth.

The more comfortable we get with English, the more we take its words for granted, words thrown around by those who claim themselves high and mighty for being able to string together a complicated sentence that uses words they don’t really mean but are ‘privileged’ enough to speak.

You say war, and use it to parade about your opinion, your status and command of the language – the status the command of the language offers you – overriding the experience of the people who lived through යුද්ධය and suffer daily from the wounds of யுத்தம்.

Do you realise that every time you shout ‘justice’ just for those who speak that language to understand you and let your word slide when it’s no longer important to you, you’ve put to shame the cries for நீதி and the quiet sobs for යුක්තිය. Their voice, though not as loud and familiar as yours, speaks from an aching heart – where there is no translation available for a definition that runs deep into their blood and bones.

Maybe this obsession with speaking a language that is not ours is why we’re so quick to fear at words that come from our own mother tongues.

ஈழம்
But what does it mean?
Essentially, a separate state for us.
What, like broken off from everyone else?
Not geographically, obviously, just something we can call our-
What’s wrong with what we have as it is?
Nothing, just that we’d like someting that’s ours, where our culture can-
Why do you have to go and stir things up? Really all this is going to do is upset things, we all get along fine.
No but you’re not hearing what I’m-
Your’ll are the ones just looking to start problems!

සිංහ-ලේ
But what does it mean?
I don’t know about the others, to me it shows I’m proud of my culture.
And that you think all others are below you, right?
I didn’t’ say that, and that’s certainly not what I see it as.
Sure, then all those Muslim houses that were spray painted?
You asked me what I saw it as, and I said it’s not the same as what all those people think.
That’s what you say now, tomorrow what will you do?
Carry on living my life?
You’ll be burning houses next.
What? No this has nothing-
This is just the first step, you don’t see it but I know it.

But they don’t even understand.

We became so obsessed with learning English that we forgot the beauty locked in the languages of our own land. We sacrificed learning Tamil for this, the worldwide prestige associated with speaking it overruling the importance to understand our own brothers and sisters.

How do we quantify the wealth of meaning lost when it’s pulled between two languages, reduced to linguistics, stripped of emotions and character?

A word is so much more than its English translation.


[Disclaimer – I’m in no way saying that there is anything wrong with knowing/speaking English, I do too. Just that we’ve become so blinded in this quest to be 1. Internationally accepted 2. Accepted by those of our community that speak it, who we deem as esteemed. That we forget our own tongues that have a nation’s story locked in their words. ]

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