Free The Blog: On language gaps
(This was originally posted at Free The Blog, part of Free the Word, this year's International PEN festival).
Being involved in this blog suddenly means that I’m becoming far more alert to and aware of the gap that there always is trying to move between different languages.
I am, despite years of education, and being from second generation Asian family, to all intents and purposes, monolingual. I have enough Bengali to know when an auntie might be ribbing me, and enough Spanish to buy churros late at night in Madrid.
But that’s it. And it’s some thing that can cause a pang of guilt, especially when you come across people like this correspondent for The Economist, who speaks seven.
My language lacuna has also been brought home to me this week, thanks to two books I’ve been reading. In Christopher Priest’s The Separation, a counter-factual, ‘what if’ re-telling of World War 2, one of the main protagonists is employed as a translator during putative peace talks. You read about the struggle to find exactly the right word, that captures a political idea in one language yet has no direct translation in another, and the ramifications if a single word or clause is mistranslated.
The other tome is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (I know, heavy week right?). Amongst the deep moral, legal and philosophical issues she carves her way through, she is unfailingly, unflinchingly clear on the way on which lacking a command of language means that you are unable to think, and also are far more easily bamboozled, misled and taken in by euphemisms or Orwellian Newspeak – what she calls ‘language rules’. And it’s precisely her fluency in English and German that allows her to show exactly how language in 1930s Germany was used to deceive, control and kill.
Because it’s never just about the words on the page; it’s always far more important than that.