Skip Navigation

2014 Winter Issue 6 (February 21, 2014)

On Language and Loss

February 21, 2014
By Robbie Emmet

“I can’t find the words to say.”

We’ve all been there before. Comforting a friend or a relative, either not knowing or not even having a way to describe your feelings at the moment. What’s interesting, though, is that this feeling is really more universal than grief. It is a byproduct of rage, an unsung desire, the translator’s curse across the thousands of years in which translation has been occurring. This is something we have to live with: the beauty of language comes with a price tag of loss.

I’m not an expert on language; I haven’t taken any linguistics classes or classes on translation theory or practice, but at least, thanks to Carleton’s requirements, I know that I share in common with all of you some familiarity with a language other than my first. Let me give an example of where translation, where putting something into (new) words, creates loss, from my chosen second language, Latin. This classic(al?) word is pius. It looks a lot like pious, right? That’s one easy way to translate it, but that’s not what it really means in the sense of how we think of “pious” – observant of a religion, devout, maybe conflated with morally, upright in some instances. No, pius calls up a whole set of institutions and expectations that are lost to us as a unified whole – loyalty to family (ancestors, parents, spouses); loyalty to the gods (household gods, the Olympians and the minor gods personifying different parts of human experience); and loyalty to one’s country (in particular, as it shows up in many cases, to the state and its leaders). Any translation of this word as “pious” or even “loyal” or “devoted” inevitably loses most of those contextual meanings.

So what does this mean for us? It is our responsibility as members of this academic community and speakers of more than one language to enrich our shared experience by using and explaining words in multiple languages. Sometimes I think that my feelings are better expressed in a language other than my first, and I think that is OK. So (and I promise to do this too), when you’re feeling it, use a word from your second or third or other language; swear in Latin (moechus!) or use a filler in Mandarin Chinese (zhege where English would have “um”) and then be ready to explain the richness of the word you just used. (Note that this can also mean doing the same in English; I’m not making assumptions about the first or second languages of my readers.) It is going to be a cura (that is, something you care about but also a pain in the neck), but it will be worth your time and worth the time of all of us who only have one lifetime to spend on learning languages.”

Add a comment

Please login to comment.