To me, it is all an act of translation.
Did you know? We inherit the word ‘barbarians’ from the Greeks and use it to mean something altogether other from the self. In fact, the Greek noun, barbarizein, is an onomatapoesis equivalent to ‘blah blah blah’ in the English language. The implication here is that to the uninitiated, what is significant and what is signified about the matter at hand will be lost and unintelligible. It is all noise.
By trade, a translator is someone who is able to sift through the noise. A translator knows how to lead across from the origin to the end point by capturing and conveying what is significant and what is signified.
So whether one is translating between two different human languages, two souls, two different mediums like a performance and photography, thoughts and words, or whether one is translating between humans-machines-humans, or between emotions and facial expressions, etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.etc.etc. the core skill set remains the same - >
having a high threshold for interacting with the unknown, approaching something new to you with openness and keen observation, understanding what needs to be conveyed, and acting as an intermediary to ensure through curiosity and experimentation that the original intent and meaning is captured. Manifested. Received. A successful translator is able to code-switch between the abstract and the eminently practical.
~ ~ ~
Even without actively, officially claiming the mantle of translator, everyone translates all the time, to a certain extent, with mixed success, of course.
The thing is, more often than not, our translations are limited and incomplete and therefore incorrect and possibly harmful when allowed to proliferate unchecked and unexamined. When we conclude our translations are final and all encompassing rather than transitory.
Day-to-day, moment-to-moment, I find myself constantly wondering: what would it mean if instead of considering this instance of translation exclusively as an act of hostility, I considered it as an opportunity for exploration, for understanding, for connection?
Maybe that’s why I’m interested in all kinds of translation, and learning all the different languages I encounter. When someone asked me why I was attending Union, my answer was to learn what other people call things I know to be true, (which maybe is just another way to say translation) but learning the language of others can happen anywhere! Not just school!
For example, these are a few instances of translation I have been mulling over recently.
A tale of three translations:
In August, I am going on an adventure where I walk a chunk of the Camino. Forgive me for not thoroughly or accurately recapping what the Camino is about, but that’s mostly because I’m not sure myself what it’s about for other people. What I do know is that it’s a path that people like to walk for reasons called ‘pilgrimage’ - people start off from various places in France, Portugal, Spain and walk and walk to get to the shrine of someone named St. James in Santiago de Compostela.
In contemplating walking this path—big ‘c’ Camino—I’ve been thinking about another path I’ve been walking over and over again this summer.
More specifically, this path is a hallway on a particular floor in a particular hospice. My patient occupies the room that is the penultimate room at the opposite end of the stairway I come up, so I walk down this hallway to reach my patient. Lining the walls of this path are a dozen patients in wheelchairs, not officially assigned to me. Some are staring at their trays, others at the wall. Some study their hands. Others stare off into the middle distance.
As I pass, I catch their eye and some turn their heads to look at me.
‘Good morning, good morning’, I say. ‘You found your salt grinder!’
‘Hola’, I say, ‘Cómo está?’
‘Buenos tardes’, I say, ‘¿tiene dolor hoy?’
I smile and nod and have little chats with those who want to have a little chat. Others simply nod back a little, surprised. Others seem unaware I am there. Others reach out their hand, and I hold it, however briefly, however unsure I am that my hand is what they’re reaching for.
One day, I found my patient in the hallway too, and in the middle of a sentence about their lunch, they sighed deeply.
‘What is it?’
They poked at a watery beige shapeless lump on their plate. ‘Ugh.’
‘My life…. has no color’, they said finally.
‘Mm.’ I paused. I thought I knew what they were saying but did I really? ‘Uh..hm. Do you mean literally or metaphorically?’
‘Well, both! Look at this place!’ they cried.
After another moment, I had an idea.
‘I know it's not much but did you want to help me choose a color to dye my hair?’
They looked sideways at me.
“Any color? I can choose?”
“Yes, any color you want.”
And then began an unexpected master class in translation.
Mr. A next to us had overheard.
“Purple” he grunted. My patient nodded thoughtfully. Judiciously.
‘Good color. That’s a color I was thinking of’, they said.
Mr. A pointed at an aide walking by, ‘like that’. The aide was wearing a smock the color of grape jelly.
My patient shook their head. ‘That’s not purple.’
Sra R. chimed in that purple was her favorite color.
Over the next quarter of an hour, it became clear that most everyone wanted purple, and that the purple each person was thinking of was a completely different shade than what the person next to them was imagining. I know this because I had some paint samples from the hardware store (long story for a different time) with me, and I ascertained that one person meant kind of a vivid pink (according to Benjamin Moore) when they said purple, another meant a lavender (I was just that color recently actually! I exclaimed); others meant an almost royal blue color, while others meant a pinky-purply color.
One man who was watching this conversation unfold bellowed, ‘GREEN!’ at one point. ‘GREEN!’
Finally, I just pulled up a retailer of home-dye kits on my phone so that we could all have the same reference. Forget the names of things, I figured, what color can we see now in this moment, together? The votes cast, the color that ended up winning was one called, inexplicably, ‘pony’, which looked a lot like the petals of a fucshia flower to me.
The one holdout was the man who repeated, ‘green. Green.’
Later that week, I pony-ed my hair and in the days that followed, I walked this path— little ‘c’ camino— to the great amusement of the hallway posse. Look, they chuckled, just look at that! The nurse laughed, shaking her head. You’re lucky they didn’t choose a crazy color. You crazy.
I only felt a bit nervous about seeing the man who wanted green, about disappointing him for not having dyed my hair green, like he wanted. I didn’t see him for a few visits, and I wondered if I’d see him again. Then one day, there he was in the hallway. We looked at each other.
‘Hello’ I said. ‘How are you?’
I was about to say I was sorry about not being green, like he wanted, when he let out a big sigh. He closed his eyes.
‘That’s it,’ he said, contentedly. ‘That’s it.’
I waited, puzzled. Surprised.
He opened his eyes and grinned at me, waving his hands.
‘That’s exactly the color I was thinking of.’
The particular chunk of the Camino I am walking begins where everyone ends.
I said up top that the Camino paths lead to Santiago de Compostela. That’s where most pilgrims celebrate that they’ve made it! They made the trek and woohoo now they can get their books stamped with the miles they trekked.
My Camino begins at that ending in Santiago de Compostela and goes further west to a point on the coast once known as the end of the world.
My friend crinkled her nose. Is that even a real Camino path? Why don’t you do a real one? she asked. Don’t you want the satisfaction of ending together with everyone? Being part of that? It’d be cool to get that stamp.
Yeah it would be. I shrugged. But who’s to say what’s a beginning and an ending?
I met a human being that the nursing staff find very difficult. She has a kind of dementia that makes her want to get out of her bed in her soiled diaper to go home though she falls when she tries. Though she doesn’t know where home is. She is full of rage and pulls out clumps of her hair. The veins in her forehead and neck pulsate rapidly as she does. She tells me that they’re going to kill her. She wants to know if I’m going to run away with her. She tells me about how we will have to go down the hallway at night. She points to the wall in front of her. There. Right there. That hallway. She picks at the scabbing skin on her face and stares at her hands like she doesn’t know what they are. ‘No’ she yells over and over again when no question was asked, when no words were said. Her shirt is covered in a yellow stain that I can’t identify. She is getting increasingly agitated, her medical records show, and she continues to attempt to get out of bed and keeps falling. They are upping her sedation. They have put bolsters on either side of her so she can’t move out of her bed without assistance. I sit with her and sing to her. She sometimes looks right at me and smiles, ‘sweetie’ she says. She touches my face. ‘Brown eyes’ she says wonderingly.
One day I found an aide leaving the room shaking her head. ‘She’s screaming,’ she said. ‘Maybe come back later.’ Sure enough, I can hear her high pitched vocalizations coming from within. I go in and sit with her. She glances at me but keeps on making the noise. I hold her hand. Whenever she glances over at me, I say, ‘I’m here. I’m listening.’ She glances at me again and again. ‘I’m here. I’m listening.’
After some time, when she doesn’t stop, I join her. I hum the pitch she’s making. And then I hum a pitch a third down and harmonize. And then I’m singing a wordless tune that dances around the note she’s making. She looks at me properly now. Her hand spasms. I move my hand in the direction of the spasm and at a glacial pace, slowly lift the hand I’m holding until our held hands are aloft in the air. She lifts her other hand, so I lift my other hand. She slowly stares at her own hand swimming through the air towards mine and she puts her hand on top of mine. My left hand is holding her left, my right hand is holding her right. We slowly move our arms, gliding through the air, one arm crossing over top the other, then unwinding so her arms are open wide, then crossing the other way. She pauses, then lets go of my right hand and gently places her right hand in the opening of my sleeve and rests it there. In this way, we begin again, our arms floating through the air, back and forth, as we hum music with no beginning and end.
Her eyes look unwaveringly into mine as she sings and dances and her forehead is smooth.
It is the most beautiful dance I have ever danced.
~ ~ ~
These and countless other translations from this summer are swirling through my body this very minute as they reveal themselves to me in both blinding starbursts and soft whispers promising to tell me more with time. I ponder the days to come. Time!
I think about how August is one form of time upcoming, and in the container of that month, I’ll try and translate the dance of walking my camino (c? C?) into images, something historically I’m not good at. But why not try? Clumsy. Imperfect. Curious. I’ll share it here, internet willing.
See you on the other side : )