Friday, February 12, 2010

"Come together..."

Recently, I did some pro bono translation work for a friend of mine, a transplanted Parisian in her eighties, faced with the complexities of the American legal system.

She sent me an Email last week to thank me, worded in a way which has been haunting me:

Je ne peux pas croire que tu es Américaine!” [I can’t believe you’re an American!]

As a translator and interpreter, I intentionally attempt to blur my cultural identity. I know a job is going well when my French clients ask me if I am French. My friend’s remark in her Email simultaneously binds me to her “Frenchness” psychologically, and separates me from her, by the reality of my place of birth.

I am a fan of Chris Matthews on MSNBC, even though it took my ears a long time to get past his strident, irritating voice which he uses like a tenacious bulldog to push his political opponent into a corner, waiting for that one golden sound bite to emerge. Mr. Matthews is in the spotlight just now for having declared that, while listening to the President’s State of the Union address, he “forgot that Obama was black.” Just like my French friend’s comment, forgetting someone’s origin is one thing. Pointing it out is another.

“Political correctness” is the modern etiquette for the prevention of culturally and ethnically driven conflicts. And etiquettes are conventions developed to “correct” human behavior. In some places, it is impolite to burp after a meal. In others, burping is a compliment to the cook. But the bottom line is that, as human animals, we all have gas.

This week, PBS will begin airing a four-part series called “Faces of America”, about family roots, by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Mr. Gates is the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard. In case his name doesn’t ring a bell, he was the gentleman “of color” who was handcuffed for breaking into his own house in Cambridge, Massachussetts, leading to his controversial arrest and subsequent invitation to the White House to discuss race relations over a glass of beer. Mr. Gates’ program on PBS proposes to look into the geneology of some beloved celebrities: Meryl Streep, Yoyo Ma, Stephen Colbert.

Perhaps if we trace geneology back far enough, we humans run out of ammunition to defend our cultural differences, discovering the complex mixture of our ancestry and our bottom line common humanity. But we seem to be ever growing apart, as a species, instead of coming together. Wouldn’t the intricate linguistic and cultural habits that are “tribal identifiers” slowly become blurred in the Internet age that is shrinking the planet? Or are we clinging ever tighter to our language and customs from a deeply biological need within us to find comfort and security among similar human beings? Will we ever get to a place in time where humans do not feel the need to defend religions, vernaculars, dress codes and traditions? Will we ever “come together” as John Lennon sang?

Translators and interpreters have been “post racial” and “global” long before those became buzz words. The best practitioners in our field bring together non-communicating parties, with equal respect for each, and deep knowledge of the message of both, to unite them into a common understanding. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries…” and he could have been the patron saint of translators, if St. Jerome hadn’t beaten him to it (and his lyrics had been grammatically correct…). “All you need is love,” was the sixties’ simplistic idealism that would blur all the divisions of race and religion. Translation, for me, is an act of love. More than words on a page, it is a bridge between two shores, a unifying force in a world with many divisive factors at work.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Legislating Lingo

My sister opened her mail today and found a Public Opinion Survey entitled: Foreign Language Usage in Illinois. The letter was personalized, in her name. Not “Occupant” or “Taxpayer” or “Concerned citizen.” Whoever composed the form letter actually took pains to find places within the text to insert my sister’s name again, in an attempt perhaps to give the message some conversational warmth.

Nevetheless, the bold characters in the first paragraph screamed xenophobia at me:

“You have been selected to participate in the enclosed Public Opinion Survey regarding the (here it comes…) increasing use of Spanish and other foreign languages in Illinois.”

The authors didn’t mask their game. They called the statistics “disturbing”:

  • 33 million foreign-born now living in the U.S.
  •  illegal immigration out of control
  •  America becoming rapidly bilingual
  • The Department of Justice requires the printing of ballots, registration forms and brochures in foreign languages at over 1,000 polling locations (and look out! this part is underlined) costing taxpayers $27 million each year.
 I smiled when I read: “some so-called ‘immigrant rights’ groups are encouraging the use of foreign languages in Illinois schools…”

My reason for getting up in the morning and going to high school was to attend my French class. Granted, I was a rare one who lived for French class, but there were nevertheless many students who took foreign language classes voluntarily for the whole four years.

At the end of the survey, under “Survey Registration”, a donation is solicited, from $15 up to $500 or “other______”. Or the optional $7.00 to “defray the cost of my survey.” The fine print warns that U.S.English (a cute little play on words, spelling out the command USE English) is a lobbying organization, and so the solicited donation is not tax deductible.

I’m sure I’ve helped line many a lobbyist’s pocket unwittingly, by selecting a product off a merchant’s shelf and putting it in my cart. At least this letter is honest enough not to hide its motive.

Language is so strongly tied to culture; they are wrapped together like pairs of chromosomes. To legislate the language we speak is to court disaster.

In France, a law was passed forbidding Muslim girls to wear their head scarves to school. In France, you are French or you’re not. It is the esoteric Culture Club in which I’ve been masquerading for years, with varying degrees of success. There is a Secret Handshake in France, and it is their language. They have an Academy to guard the integrity of the language and even once had a Minister of the government, with the interesting name of Toubon (pronounced like “tout bon” or All Good) who attempted to outlaw English imports into French by finding charming French equivalents for things like Email (courriel) and DVD (the cumbersome disque numérique polyvalent !).

But more than 15 years later, the French say “email” and “DVD” (although pronounced day-vay-day as it should be to anyone familiar with the French alphabet). And the head scarf ban has not helped to integrate Muslim populations with les Français de souche. The classic holiday ritual for young “dis-en-franch-ised” persons of foreign origin in France is to set cars on fire. Let’s burn the symbols of our economic inequalities.

The interesting thing about language is that children can usually become bilingual very easily, speaking one language at home and another at school. And bilingualism is a definite asset on an ever-shrinking planet. Furthermore, in one of my translator’s groups, someone talked about medical studies of brain activity, where it was discovered that the activity that fired the most electrical charges in the brain was the act of TRANSLATING from one language to another. Better than Sudoku for keeping senility at bay…

Those who wish to restrict “foreign” languages in the U.S. probably don’t speak one. Granted, the survey letter my sister received is signed by a guy named Mauro E. Mujica, who immigrated here from Chile and on his website, he professes to have “firsthand understanding of the obstacles facing non-English speakers upon their arrival in this country.” Of course, he holds a Master’s in Architecture and is fluent in Spanish, English and French, with a working knowledge of German and Italian and is currently studying Russian. He doesn’t sound like a xenophobe to me.

In fact, I would imagine that he can attribute a certain significant measure of his success in life to his advanced linguistic abilities.

How much greater world citizens we Americans would be if everyone here spoke a second language.

The debate reminds me of how I became a translator and interpreter in the first place.

My mother spoke only Polish when she began her schooling in Chicago and apparently it was a difficult enough beginning for her that she forbade Polish to be spoken to me as a child, her firstborn. My mother passed away last year, and I found her grammar school report cards stashed away among her things. Indeed, her grades were mediocre the first year and into the next one, but after that, she became a straight-A student, and went on to get a full scholarship to the University of Illinois where she became a pharmacist. Later on, she went back to school and became a certified teacher with the State of Illinois. Her early bilingualism did her no harm.

For me, on the other hand, I was raised by my Polish grandparents while Mom was off to work, and so I continued to hear Polish as a small child. My grandparents were aware of my Mom’s linguistic restriction on me, and so my grandfather would take me down to his basement that was his special realm. His workbench was down there, and an old clock with which he taught me to tell time. Using a deck of worn playing cards, he secretly taught me to count in Polish, to say a few phrases and we kept the language lessons secret, just like the bottles of warm Old Style beer that he kept under the porch. He would smile and be thrilled with me when I could repeat words back at him in Polish. Of course, I blew his cover when he taught me a few Polish drinking songs and I casually traipsed one or two of them out at a family gathering. But I had a captive audience who thought I was the best thing since Shirley Temple.

I think I have been searching ever since for that warm welcoming linguistic secret homeland. When I travel to France to see my adoptive family, I become my French self, dressing a bit differently, eating and thinking and gesturing differently, all as a part of the language and culture, ultimately belonging to a club where I learned the secret password.