During a recent trip to Montreal, I had the opportunity to brush up on my very, very rusty French. It’s amazing how quickly it all comes back even after some fifteen years of disuse. What’s also amazing, though, is the perspective gained from being away from a language for so long that you see it through a different lens entirely.
Although everyone in the city was fluent in English, the written word was primarily in French. My husband’s French is limited to pop culture phrases, so he was linguistically lost. After I had to get out of the car at a gas station to tell him what the pump reader was saying, it became my job to translate menus, street signs, and?when one of them was particularly catchy?billboards.
It wasn’t always successful. You know the dead air when a comedian tells a lousy joke? Sometimes I’d attempt to translate an amusing ad, but the joke would fall flat. It just wasn’t funny; the English words weren’t an adequate vehicle to communicate the laugh. Quite literally, the humour was lost in translation.
A few days later we were driving through the Catskill Mountains?of Rip van Winkle fame?and naturally I had to whip out the smart phone to Google the name’s origin. Although it is debated, the consensus seems to be that ?kill? came from a Dutch word for ?creek.? There are ?kill? rivers, mountains, and communities all over Pennsylvania and upstate New York, parts of which were settled by the Dutch during the 17th century.
My Googling turned up something else intriguing. Apparently, a town named Fishkill was the subject of a 1996 petition by PETA, which claimed that the name invited cruelty and violence toward fish. And this got me thinking about how easily meaning and motive are lost in translation in everyday life.
How often does this happen outside the purely linguistic sphere? How often do we attribute motives to words and actions, applying the yardstick of our own social language?our upbringing, values, or personal moral code?to others? How often do we shut down in anger or frustration at the pigheadedness or circular reasoning of people who surely can’t still be defending their positions?
During the course of our trip, there were times when I’d have to accept the fact that the French-language jokes just weren’t going to work in English, because the cultural background behind the idiom or saying wasn’t shared by the two languages. Accept it, and move on. And while It’s just as hard to communicate with those who don’t share our values or socio-cultural background, It’s even more important.
Because there’s more at stake than a funny billboard.