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.

1 comment:

fudge4ever said...

Hi Connie,
I was just doing some work on Fellowscript magazine and happened to stumble across your blog. This entry about how Thai people use the heart to explain thinking is so very interesting! It must be a very fulfilling ministry for you a linguist - something I always wanted to do but didn't realize until I was 50!
Pam Mytroen