Traduttore, Traditore

On speaking different languages

Foreign languages are a ripe territory for metaphor. Take, for example, the generic phrase “lost in translation,” whose figurative meanings are as rich, if not more so, than its literal. Hearing it I always think of the Italian saying “Traduttore, traditore,” which literally means “translator, traitor”—a cheeky rhyme implying that to translate is to betray.

Lost. Betrayed. These are, I’d agree, not unusual feelings when bereft of the right language, unable to make yourself understood. (Indeed: God intended to punish us in this very way, following the Tower of Babel debacle.) I got to thinking about such layers of misalignment and bewilderment after reading the words of Helena Fitzgerald, in her weekly newsletter Griefbacon, about our upcoming year-in-lockdown anniversary:

Through some grand injustice, it is March again. Everyone is already talking about lockdown anniversaries, but in terms of the calendar, most of us are actually not quite there yet. We’re in the just-barely-before, something arguably far more painful. This week is the anniversary not of lockdown but of the thing that preceded it; these are the anniversaries of the last good day. … Whatever the “when this is all over” that we all talk to each other about actually turns out to be, it will not be recognizable. The early part of last March happened in a language that none of us will ever speak again.

Much has been written on the idea that we are not “going back to normal,” to expect, rather, a “new normal”—and already business and real estate and epidemiology bear this out. So much will be actually different. But we are the thing that is going to be most different. If you’ve ever spent a long time abroad, or even just away at college, coming back home is always a bit baffling. Things look smaller, with a slightly fuzzy sheen that feels surreal. It’s familiar but alien; comforting but somehow disappointing. None of it has really changed, of course, except you. The early part of last March happened in a language that none of us will ever speak again.

To state the obvious, language is much more than component words. It’s a shared framework, an in-group of style, disposition, and cultural understanding, from sentence intonation all the way to societal values. In France, young Americans are taught not to smile at people on the street (the North Carolinians in my study abroad program were well more scandalized by this than I was) because the French don’t do this and could construe it as mocking, even contemptuous. (Of course.) Our new shared language, in the “after times,” will retain the imprint of recently learned behaviors—what are our faces even doing underneath our masks? What social graces have we lost living on our own, without the humanizing effect of small, everyday interactions? Will we be forever a little distrustful, a little afraid, like the dreams we’re all having now where you go places and realize, horrified, that you don’t have a mask?

French has a magnificent untranslatable word that gets at the very feeling of being between two worlds. Dépaysant describes the simultaneously disorienting and exhilarating feeling of being somewhere or experiencing something new or different—it literally means out of country (pays). It’s a most satisfying word, one you can deploy for describing a big trip across the world, or for a particularly interesting meal or activity or conversation. It’s the thrill and terror of the not-quite-yours. The thing is, if you spend even just a little time learning a language, just a few months in the country of its linguistic logic, it’s a wonder how the untranslatable words start to make an inevitable, totalizing sense. Your native tongue may not have an equivalent word, but whatever it describes is likely a universal feeling. It’s revelatory to learn a single word, in any language, that contains a whole something you’d not yet been endowed to efficiently name; it’s a gift of conceptual, phenomenological awareness. (The Danish hygge is a famous example. Or komorebi in Japanese, meaning the scattered light that filters when the sun shines through the trees.)

The languages of our everyday are constantly shifting, to welcome in, say, a new job, or home, or person, or monumentally troubling reality—cleaning out old vocabularies and replacing them with different ones. On the anniversary of the week our lives changed, I hope to spend less time lost in the treacherous, traitorous translation of former happinesses, and more time dreaming up words to match novel concepts in our lives. Like “heretofore inconceivable relief, joy, and surreality” for when we finally emerge, and “the anthropologic satisfaction of studying regional accents and vocabulary through British reality TV,” for as long as we don’t.


On things that are culturally specific but also dishearteningly not, there’s a new Danish children’s TV show about a guy with an absurdly long penis that’s always getting him into trouble. On why this country is a nightmare, writer Meg Conley recaps the devastating Texas freeze. When it feels like you’re not doing anything, or enough of anything, try writing down how to do the things you do; I loved this piece “How To Do 50 Things.” And this website peddles audio nostalgia, offering the ambient sounds of eating out (equal parts exquisite and devastating to have this going while you type alone in your apartment).


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