Tuesday, February 15, 2011

tongues of love, the lettered heart, and other bad translations

Yesterday, Valentine's Day, Fritz brought me white tulips - unos tulipanes blancos.  They are even prettier pronounced in Spanish.  New sounds to mean the same old thing, tongue and teeth shaping themselves around the unfamiliar words until throat and mouth themselves become the flower - la flor.

This flower-giving is uncharacteristic of Fritz, though not out of character.  Especially as no words were offered, just flowers, with a silence which is a corrective, I believe, to the too many words said lately. 

(When I am an expert in eldercare, I will write a chapter with a useful chart of all the words that ought not to be said.  Especially by those who should be taking care.  I will know what they are, because I will have said them all.)  

Without opening his lips, Fritz handed me white tulips.  And I was touched, moved even, though our hands barely brushed.  It was, if you like, I like to think, a kind of speaking in tongues.  A purer kind of language. 

Or at least, less open to bad translations.

A mother, driving the car, says to her daughter :

- I'm sorry.  I'm interrupting you, 
but I just can't stop feeling this anger at everything.

- So scream.

And so she did.  The mother did. 
Suddenly.  And for several seconds.
A sound frightening, bereft, and furious.

Studying Spanish, I find something is happening to my inner brain.  It's like I'm closing in on some deeper definition to words I thought I already knew.  As if another word for the same things allows a triangulation of the meaning. 

She hadn't known she could make that sound.
Though still she kept a steady hand on the steering wheel.

Then cried into her free hand,
little huffing, breathless, exhausted sobs.

The daughter said nothing,
made short soft pats on the mother's back.

- Thank you for making it safe for me to do that.

- Glad to be there.

- I don't feel so angry anymore.

- That's good.

- Am I going crazy?

- Not at all.

- If anyone had been driving past they would have thought so.

- They would have thought you were singing.
Very energetically singing.

Which sets them off, mother and daughter,
into whoops of gulping laughter.

There are tears in their eyes.
The daughter so wise, the mother so confused.

But isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

Or as if translating from one language to a second to a third helps to plot out the actual dimensions of the truth.  Truth being what our words can only ever approach as approximations.  Like playing that addictive Minesweeper.  Where you click-click-click on empty squares around the hidden target - which is a bomb that will blow you up and out of the game.   Each safe click turns the empty square over, reveals a number: how many bombs border that safe square.  Eight is the maximum number of potential bombs bordering any one square, because a square has only that many sides and corners.  It's simple.  Lucky clicks will sweep out whole areas that are safe and free of bombs.  And bordering those open areas:  more safe squares that helpfully give you the number of bombs nearby - so that you can avoid them - after you flag them as dangerous.

A man and a woman stand at the head of the stairs:

- So let's get rid of the dog then.

-Oh, yes. Why don't we, that's a great solution.

And the next day, standing in the same spot,
locked in the same unspeakable question:

- I've called the animal shelter and for fifty dollars
they're prepared to look at taking the dog.

- What? That's not what I need.
You're not listening to me.
You haven't been listening to me.

The man makes his way down the stairs, and in the background
their son begins to drip silent tears
squeezing out of his tightly folded face:

The son says:
-No, it's okay. If you have to take her away,it's okay.
If it's too hard to take care of everything.

Why is it so hard to take care of everything?

For example, take la escoba.  In Spanish it means broom.  Since learning it, the word will not sit still in my mind.  What? what? I keep asking it - there's a word it reminds me of, what is it?  Rushes, reeds, scouring - escoriating - that's not a word - what?  Excoriate, excoriating - as in "The candidates have publicly excoriated each other throughout the campaign" - is that it?

Probably that's what I was thinking of.

Though excoriate is from the Latin ex (off) + corium (skin, hide) - in other words, "to flay," "to strip the skin from."  And escoba is from the Latin scopa (which means, unsurprisingly, "broom") and enters English only as the scientific term scopa from the Latin scopae (plural, 'twigs, branches/sprigs tied together, i.e. broom') and refers to
  • a small brush-like tuft of hairs on some insects, especially that on which pollen collects on the leg of a bee

Not so much scouring out, after all, as gathering up and carrying in to nourish the hive. 

I'm chagrined to recognize a familiar pattern in my characteristically dire mistranslation.


A mother and a daughter are walking out of the local WartMall:

-You know how Aunt M says people always  smile and talk to you
more than she's ever seen.

- I guess.

-Well, that's why.  How you asked the check-out clerk if she had a dog
and what she did to keep them calm after being spayed.
Because your dog had you at your wits' end.
How you really wanted advice from her.

- Hmmph.

- You talk to everyone like they're real people.
I think most checkers have people treat them like they're servants.
But you really care what they have to say.

- I don't know.  I just don't think.
I open my mouth no matter where I am.
Or who I'm talking to.   I have no appropriate filters.

- You don't see differences.
You take the world with an open heart.
I think it's good to be so open-hearted.

- But better probably to be more close-mouthed.

Silence is golden.  Discretion is the better part of valor.  How would you translate that into, say, Spanish? A buen ententedor pocas palabras bastan.  One word to the wise is sufficient? 

Do you know what that dog means to him
right now?

- You said it was too much for you.

- I said I was overwhelmed.

- You agreed it was a good idea.

- ! I was being ironic.

Or take the Spanish phrase la carta amatoria.  I know this means "love letter" but how can it be just that?  Isn't Magna Carta booming in the background?  I want la carta amatoria to mean Love's Charter, declaring the open ways and rights of love, spelled out in sections and articles.  With room for amendments.

I want la carta amatoria to be an Anatomy of Love, a doctor's chart with every vein and muscle fibre of the heart labeled in unquestionable Latin.

- You had too much to do.
I found you a solution.

- Look, we could just as well say,
Let's put your mother in a nursing home
as, Let's dump the dog off at the pound.

Translating, see? 
into terms he'd understand?

Isn't carta a word for map? I want la carta amatoria to mean a kind of Map of Love - the kind sailors make once they're safe returned, with all the hazards they've escaped inked in carefully:  the squally reefs where they weathered storms, where their ship's helm was splashed but never swamped. The places where monsters be and kraken writhe -- thoroughly charted.  Tight corners they managed nonetheless to sail past, the rocks where they did not founder after all -- everything noted.  And all the peaceful harbors clearly marked.

Something so clear, it doesn't need translation. 


Lisa B. said...

This is heartbreaking. First of all. That's a good thing (the truth in that "broken heart/contrite spirit" idea that I have so struggled against and contended with).

Second, I hope that some of the treacherous shoals, once navigated, won't be so treacherous the next time, and the next. I wish this for myself as much as for anyone. For you.

Third, those tulips are beautiful.

kathy said...

Your sweetheart did a great job with those la flor...they are beautiful...I love them when they are unopened to the world yet...they always seem like they are trying to hold onto whats inside and not share it, UNTIL the sun hits them and then the LIGHT shines down on them and then they open up for everyone to see

Emma J said...

kathy, you would have liked one of my grandpa's favorite verses:

Wise old owl lived in an oak,
More he heard, less he spoke,
Less he spoke, more he heard -
Why can't we be like that wise old bird?

Funny thing is, his quoting would make me think of a hundred reasons why we just can't.

My sweetheart did do well though, didn't he?

moria said...

A propos of your last post, on emotion, what strikes me so powerfully here is this: that you are able to dwell long enough in the space of this intensity to produce something this beautiful, this well-wrought. I have read this post three times today. I have loved it more each time. It inspires me toward the patience with myself that would allow me to dwell in such spaces long enough to find their productivity.

And I'm with Lisa, above, on hearts. Donne:

O God of all light, I know thou knowest all, and it is thou that declarest unto man what is his heart. Without thee, O sovereign Goodness, I could not know how ill my heart were. Thou hast declared unto me, in thy word, that for all this deluge of evil that hath surrounded all hearts, yet thou soughtest and foundest a man after thine own heart; that thou couldest and wouldst give thy people pastors according to thine own heart; and I can gather out of thy word so good testimony of the hearts of men as to find single hearts, docile and apprehensive hearts; hearts that can, hearts that have learned; wise hearts in one place, and in another in a great degree wise, perfect hearts; straight hearts, no perverseness without; and clean hearts, no foulness within: such hearts I can find in thy word; and if my heart were such a heart, I would give thee my heart. But I find stony hearts too, and I have made mine such: I have found hearts that are snares; and I have conversed with such ... I have found these hearts, and a worse than these, a heart into the which the devil himself is entered, Judas's heart. The first kind of heart, alas, my God, I have not; the last are not hearts to be given to thee. What shall I do?

I, for my part, shall seek to dwell in my insufficiently broken heart, to do what I can to break it into meaning.

Please don't ever stop doing what you do, Emma.

Mrs. Organic said...

I keep coming back to this, seeing that dance we do after 20 years of learning and relearning the steps to understanding each other.

Those white tulips are symbolic.

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