Monday, July 3

lost+found in translation

When I learnt English in middle school and high school in India, I was told never to use the method of translation to learn the language. I think, that it is a tacit agreement among my English teachers (4 of them in 2 schools) that the idea of learning using translation is a bane.

During my school days, I came to accept this rule, but never understood why. Until the other day... I was talking to some one about my hurt toe. I said, "I hurt my leg finger, when I played soccer (football) yesterday". It took some time (with the puzzling look on his face) to realize that there is no such thing as a "leg finger" in English. They are called toes. It often happens when I try to construct a sentence in my mother tongue (Tamil), and then translate to English. In Tamil, (if you literally translate the words), they call the toe - "leg finger", and the actual finger - the "hand finger".

I think, more than just trying to avoiding such pitfalls, what my English teachers were trying to achieve, was to induce a sense of the English culture into my learning experience. Language is the most important aspect in the definition of a culture. Why would then, Sir Winston Churchill write a book "A History of English speaking peoples" rather than say "A Short History of the Great Britain and the USA" ? I think, for Churchill, "English speaking peoples" was a means to convey the language as a cultural identity.

The problem of learning a foreign language, thus, for most part, is a problem of understanding a culture. Whenever I see a new word or a phrase in English, I don't try to a cultural context of my mother tongue. Because of the way I was taught, I now am trying to understand it in the cultural context of the "English speaking peoples". I never "need to" understand what it would mean in my culture. Or if there is even a definition of it in my culture. All of these happens without any conscious decision of my own.

And So, When I was trying to translate this phrase "Our Endangered Values:America's Moral Crisis" (the book by Jimmy Carter) to Tamil, I stuttered. Because I couldn't translate the word "Values" in its English sense to my mother tongue. (Probably because the values in my culture are tied more to religion than the common law. That's a different story).

It was an exhilarating experience just to realize that... What is found in translation, is more interesting than, what is lost. I find my cultural identity.

1 comment:

Rama P said...

Hey Pons,
Do a spell/grammar check b4 publishing :) and do remember that I'll be reading your blogs.