Found in Translation

by CJ GIBSON on OCTOBER 14, 2012 

     Alone in a small, closed-door room, I sit at a telephone. In front of me is a piece of paper with my translation on it, crossed out and creased with the patience of one endlessly supportive professor. Beside the bilingual text lies the code to the recording mailbox for the phone line of an immigrants’ rights center.  For the next month, my voice will be the recording directing callers in both Arabic and English.

     Sure, I’m aware this work isn’t exactly life changing for the callers. The fact that I’m telling people to leave their name and number probably (or rather hopefully) won’t be remembered as a significant part of their day. Yet, I can’t suppress a twinge of excitement as I grab the plastic handle of the phone and hit record. I’m consciously aware that although there is only one passcode sitting in front of me, I am holding two keys.

     Because unlocking a code is exactly what translation between different languages feels like. Picture a plank wood fence, a wall where the only impressions a person can obtain from the being on the other side is seen through the spaces between the splinters, an obstruction that doesn’t allow sound to cross. Without translation, these two different sides are locked apart, leading to judgments based on narrow observations. Then the person with the ability to communicate across this barrier comes into the picture, puts the key between the wooden boards and sends the fence shattering to pieces at the feet of the two sides.  These parties come to find their little opinions, their small judgments, have come up short in understanding the humanity that each of them represents.

     I want to be that person. The one whose presence in a situation can shatter stereotypes and promote understanding where there wasn’t even communication before. I know I have a long way to go, but this semester I’ve been able to get a bit closer by taking a wonderful class on translating contemporary Arabic poetry. This class has brought the difficulty of cross-cultural translation to my attention, which is absolutely necessary to be aware of when communicating between groups.

     There are a lot of nuances in language that at first glance, especially to a native speaker, are easily overlooked. But to a person who is learning a foreign tongue, each word has to take on a new value. The meaning behind it, with all its connotations, can easily be lost. The same goes for cultural allusions; as I am learning quickly, there is much to life outside the U.S. that I don’t know the slightest thing about, even though I spend countless hours a week studying Arab culture on top of the language. But there are certain pieces of daily life I won’t understand until I’ve lived there. In this way, my Arabic poetry class has made me all the more certain of my study abroad plans. If I truly want to be able to communicate between two groups, I have to fully understand every aspect of life, not just language.

     In sum, as I sit with the receiver pressed to my ear, speaking in English first, then Arabic as clearly as possible, I realized how much I’ve learned only four weeks into the semester. Translation isn’t merely a word by word processes, it’s an idea by idea transfer of culture, of humanity in general. This is a big undertaking, one that I probably won’t be able to grasp in full until I’ve been completely immersed in the culture itself. So for now I feel proud, and humbled that my teachers would think of me and help me so much with this project of recording the message for the immigration center. 

     Because this is my first step towards becoming the woman with the key.