Lost I n Translation
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?