Friday, February 28, 2014

Language, Translation and Existence

I wrote this for a Composition course I took a few years ago. There is some overlap with the previous post but this post has more to do with identity in a new culture and language, something a TCA struggles with almost daily.
Growing up in a little prairie town in Saskatchewan, I had little exposure to mountains. I have a vivid memory, however, of driving through the Rocky Mountains on a family vacation when I was 11. As we travelled west past Calgary, I was in awe of what rose before us. The jagged peaks, multi-faceted rock formations, swift-flowing streams rushing down from the snowcaps were fantastic—but also ominous for a young child. Winding around the dynamite-blown rock faces beside 300-meter drops, blind to what was around the bend, was frightening. What did the first explorers feel when they traversed the prairies and watched the mountains grow in the distance, not knowing how high or wide or long the range extended? For me, the only thing I can compare it to is the feeling I had upon moving to the other side of the world. Trying to communicate in a language I had never heard, with strange vowels and tones and a script that looked only like geometrical shapes and artistic squiggles, was like trying to cross an undiscovered mountain range.
 Part of me was exhilarated by the adventure. I studied the many crags and crevices of the etymology and syntax of Thai, a slow uphill climb. I drank in the cool, mountain stream of Thai culture—relishing spicy dishes filled with hot peppers and coconut milk or swaying on the etched back of a graceful elephant. But I also felt crippled, lost, in the inability to express ‘me’ and I sought to understand the ‘why’ of that feeling and the ‘how’; how could I be me in Thailand?
In the early stage of language learning I realized that language is existence, not mere existence as another homo sapien on this planet, but existence as an individual. If I cannot speak or write, I cease to be the person I am. My cultural heritage, my personality, my uniqueness would vanish in the mountain wilderness. But it was in translation, in using the familiar highway of English to explore and chart this new mountain range called Thai, that I grasped how my individuality, my values, and my history were defined by my words. It was a paramount discovery.
I am a trained linguist. That means I am able to analyze the speech sounds and patterns, phonology and grammar of any language of the world. What drew me to this area of study was my infatuation with the English language. In grade school I was curious—curious about all the different figures of speech, what constituted classic writing, why we studied grammatical parsing of sentences, how English differed from French. That curiosity directed me to linguistics, and linguistics made me appreciate and love English, my mother tongue. But in moving to Thailand I felt like my mother tongue was being stripped away. And, in a way, it was.
In my training I saw that figures of speech, especially metaphors, flourish in all languages but as I studied Thai I realized metaphor is not just a comparison of words. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson state in Metaphors We Live By that “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” and that “our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people”. One example they cite is the metaphorical concept “TIME IS MONEY” as shown through such phrases as “wasting my time, budget your time, borrowed time”. This book opened my eyes to why I was struggling to express myself in Thai. It was not just a language problem. It was a concept problem.
With that knowledge I began to study how a Thai person sees the world—the metaphors they use to explain culture, feelings and relationships—in contrast to metaphors I use to define my world. The clouds that had been hanging heavy over the mountain range began to dissipate.
An old English proverb says, “The eyes are the window of the soul.” In English, eyes metaphorically represent emotions in terms like ‘green-eyed monster, bright-eyed, hungry-eyed, flaming eyes, sparkling eyes, longing eye.’ For a native English speaker, each of these metaphors describes a specific emotion. The Thai language does not use the eye but the heart to describe a wide range of emotions, a discovery that gave me a glimpse into the Thai mindset.
A colleague introduced me to a book called Heart Talk by Christopher G. Moore, a book for the foreigner seeking to understand how the word ‘heart’ is used in the Thai language. Moore states that the word “jai [defined as “the heart” in English] in Thai means both “heart” and “mind”.” (13). Generally, the Westerner separates thinking and feeling. The Thai person does not. Let me cite two examples from the over 300 root words using jai. The first one, written in Roman script, is cit jay suung, literally translated as the “tall heart,” (56) and in English means “a person who has a high moral standard” (56). It is a choice of the mind in English. In Thai it is a choice of the heart. The second example means the same as our metaphor ‘out of sight, out of mind’ showing how we compare sight to thinking in English. In Thai the phrase klay taa klay jai is translated “eye far/heart far” or we could say “out of sight, out of heart,” comparing sight to emotions. I was beginning to envision what was around the next bend.
That revelation energized me for the long journey ahead. It is a journey I will continue on as long as I am living in Thailand, exploring how the metaphors of my language and culture translate into Thai. Just as the raw, Rocky Mountains stand in stark contrast to the serene, Saskatchewan prairies, so the Thai mindset counters mine. Translating ‘me’ in Thailand takes time and work. It is, however, a highway worth travelling because for me, it is the difference between merely existing and truly being.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Heart Talk

When our family moved to Thailand to work with minority language groups, my husband and I were introduced to a book by Christopher G. Moore called, Heart Talk. This book is like no other on the study of the word, *jai 'heart' in the Thai language. It is a fascinating read for anyone doing any kind of cross-cultural writing because it provides insight not only into "love" emotions but into most of the emotions expressed by Thai people.

In this book there are over 700  jai words/phrases that the Thai people know and use constantly. Whether it's talking about positive emotions or negative emotions, good character traits or bad character traits, right choices or wrong choices, the word or phrase usually includes jai. It is no wonder the author calls it, "the central metaphor in the Thai language."

Let me share a few of these "heart" words to help you understand how differently the Thai view life. There are some words that cross over culturally such as jai-yai 'heart big' in referring to a generous person, or jai-sing 'heart lion' in referring to a courageous person. However, there are many that are surprising and sometimes even opposite of how westerners think. For example, jai-nooy 'heart small' doesn't mean a stingy person. It is referring to someone who is highly sensitive emotionally, who is easily hurt or offended by others. Kin-jai 'eat heart' is a verb meaning, "to impress" in a good way; Or, jai-phra 'heart monk' referring to a person who is extremely compassionate and forgiving; Or naam-jai 'water heart' referring to someone who takes into account another person's feelings. This last one could be translated to mean empathy or sympathy in English but in Thai there are two totally different jai words for those feelings. Are you getting the picture?

But I must mention one of the most used jai words: kreeng-jai 'awe heart'--a word that is almost untranslatable into English. Moore calls it, "the heart of hearts of the Thai culture and class system.":

"The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions--a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear--which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer."

It takes the author 1 1/2 pages to define this type of patron/client cultural system and even then he confesses that it goes so much deeper. Our western culture find this a difficult concept to grasp. Often we are more jai dii phii khaw 'good heart, ghost enters'. Anyone care to guess what that means?

I focus on this book because it is a reminder of what happens when we come in contact with other cultures--how my eyes were opened to their culture and thus I looked at my culture in a new way--and how through it I became more of a TCA in the way I began to view the world. And it made me more aware than in a world that is becoming smaller every day, where we interact with other cultures on a daily basis, a book like this can help us see the world through different eyes and then help us show love to others in a whole new way AND share Jesus' love in a whole new way too.

*Unfortunately, due to computer incompatibility, I could not mark tone on the Thai words.