Lost I n Trans­la­tion

Wild Fibers - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Linda N. Cor­tright

Ihave read stud­ies in­di­cat­ing that for­eign lan­guage skills can be in­stilled in chil­dren prior to potty train­ing. I wouldn’t be the least bit sur­prised if the panel of trans­la­tors hov­er­ing in the shad­ows of the U. N. Gen­eral Assem­bly were bilin­gual from birth. The fact that my own for­eign lan­guage skills are sur­passed in in­ep­ti­tude only by my lack of culi­nary tal­ent is not the re­sult of a parental hic­cup at this seem­ingly crit­i­cal stage. My aver­sion to for­eign lan­guages is the di­rect re­sult of my fifth grade French teacher. She hated me, and I can say with per­fect rec­ol­lec­tion that the feel­ing was mu­tual.

I suf­fered through eight long years of French classes ac­com­pa­nied by a suc­ces­sion of in­creas­ingly odi­ous teach­ers. I sur­vived four ar­du­ous years of Latin and a se­mes­ter of Ital­ian. My en­tire life might have un­folded dif­fer­ently had my one French teacher not hollered in a grat­ing Parisian shrill, “Linda, you are stupid, stupid girl! Thus end­ing not only my hope of ever be­com­ing pro­fi­cient in French, but clearly my en­tire aca­demic ca­reer.

My gross short­com­ing means I have great ad­mi­ra­tion for those who can speak a for­eign lan­guage—much less sev­eral. Sto­b­gais, my dear no­madic friend from In­dia, speaks at least five lan­guages, and ev­ery now and then in the course of our friend­ship we have had some good laughs over trans­lat­ing idioms. Not too long ago we were riding in a car to­gether and I ca­su­ally re­marked about a friend’s unan­nounced preg­nancy, “I wonder when Paula is go­ing to let the cat out of the bag.”

Sto­b­gais looked at me with a mea­sure of hor­ror and said, “Why does Paula have her cat in a bag?”

I’m rather ag­i­tated with my­self that I haven’t doc­u­mented these glo­ri­ous en­coun­ters over the years. The real doozies, how­ever, tend to be un­for­get­table.

Sev­eral months ago when I was in Sto­b­gais’s vil­lage meet­ing with more than 60 women for the Pan­gong Com­mu­nity Cash­mere Project, he was fully en­gaged try­ing to trans­late my ev­ery word to the group. Soon af­ter I had pas­sion­ately ex­pressed my grat­i­tude for their heart­felt wel­come, I no­ticed a steady din as the ladies be­gan con­fer­ring among them­selves, fre­quently look­ing up at me and then re­turn­ing to their con­ver­sa­tion. Some­thing had them abuzz.

The chat­ter con­tin­ued un­til fi­nally I started feel­ing just plain left out. I leaned over to Sto­b­gais and asked him what the women were talk­ing about.

Sto­b­gais just laughed and replied, “They are talk­ing about your ex­pi­ra­tion!” And then he just smiled re­ally big and laughed even harder.

I don’t think I’m any more sen­si­tive than the next per­son, but I wasn’t sure why the topic of my demise in a room of near strangers was of any in­ter­est, not to men­tion so des­per­ately amus­ing. “What did you just say?” “They are talk­ing about your ex­pi­ra­tion,” he replied yet again, and con­tin­ued laugh­ing.

Hav­ing now con­firmed his first re­sponse I wrin­kled my nose at Sto­b­gais and said, “I don’t think that’s very funny!”

“But Achi,” the name he calls me that means ‘older sis­ter.’ “You have so many big ex­pi­ra­tions. The women are not used to it.” And then I fi­nally got it. “Oh geez. Sto­b­gais, you mean EX­PRES­SION!” “Yes, that’s what I said. You have big ex­pi­ra­tion!” “No, the word you mean is E-X-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N.” I re­peated it sev­eral times, enun­ci­at­ing ev­ery syl­la­ble in a loud voice, and he re­peated it back to me quite clearly and cor­rectly.

“When you talk about a per­son’s ex­pi­ra­tion, you are talk­ing about when they’re go­ing to die.”

Sto­b­gais looked aghast. He be­gan to apol­o­gize when I quickly waved my hand to shush him.

“Oh please, it’s fine. I get it now. Don’t worry,” I as­sured him. But in all the years we have stum­bled over words and phrases to­gether this was, in­deed, a stand­out.

It’s true. I have al­ways been very ex­pres­sive in my com­mu­ni­ca­tions. I make wild faces. I ges­ture like a band­leader. My voice goes up and down. And I have a hor­ri­bly wide, toothy grin that you can stick a din­ner plate through. Con­versely, Ladakhis tend to be a bit more poker-faced, com­mu­ni­cat­ing quite ef­fec­tively with­out break­ing into full-body spasms. I re­ally do un­der­stand why my lit­tle speech of thanks prompted some com­men­tary.

Three days later Sto­b­gais drove me to the air­port and I be­gan the long jour­ney home. As I neared the front of the se­cu­rity line I be­gan re­mov­ing my lap­top, my mo­bile phone, and other of­fend­ing items while si­mul­ta­ne­ously scoot­ing the bin closer to the x-ray ma­chine.

One of the guards be­gan yelling at me and point­ing at the floor. I thought maybe some­thing had dropped from my bag, but there was noth­ing there. He con­tin­ued rap­ping on the counter and point­ing down un­til I fi­nally got close enough to hear what he was say­ing. “Your feet! Your feet! Take off your feet!”

And I looked down at my shoes, which I typ­i­cally slip off at the last pos­si­ble mo­ment, and to keep peace in the king­dom, I quickly slipped them off and put my feet in the bin. I can’t help but wonder what my French teacher would have

wF done with him?

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