Notes About Other Languages

the view

Ran across this phrase in my “homework” (reading my book club book in French): “d’un coup sec” Context: “Je poussai d’un coup sec les persiennes.” OK so literally I translated: “I pushed with a salty clap the Persians.” Wrong! It’s actually, “I smartly opened the blinds.” I’m not a francophile, but in reading this I realize once in a while why it’s great to read not-in-translation: I get these super descriptive expressions, Persians, a kind of blind. Or, a word for a chair that doesn’t mean a chair, but a specially upholstered fluffy one. The fact that the dictionary has a huge page devoted to all of the idiomatic uses of “coup,” and what that may (or may not) mean about French culture. (Now, English coup has been adopted with only one meaning, so I’m not inferring that they are a coup-happy culture.)

Onwards to a Buddhist morality play I recently saw in Chinatown, “Eternal Happiness.” It was heavily accented Cantonese Mandarin, and I was lost without the translations, but once in a while I’d get these little nuances of Chinese language, and culture to an extent: there’s about 7 ways to say “I should do this.” Depending on whether your parents want you to do it, whether it’s permissable in general, millitary requirement, whether you can physically do it, etc., an online dictionary, lists 9 “shoulds” but we were taught about 5 that we could easily distinguish as Western speakers, and that were commonly used. In a morality play you can imagine how many variations of “should” they used.

Immersion is so important. I came back from Russia and was cleaning my apartment, and saw some notes I wrote in Russian. I was studying phrases, simple ones like спасибо болшое (spaseebo bolshoi) and didn’t retain it. I remember looking at my Moscow city guide Katya and going, hey, she’s saying “thanks a lot,” I should remember that phrase.

Speaking of impasses, there’s one situation that hadn’t happened in about twenty years. My childhood friend spoke Korean, and on one long drive she was trying to teach me a simple phrase: I am. “Nanun”. With that, I’d be able to say a lot! The entire drive consisted of her saying “nanun,” and me saying it back, and her just not being satisfied. That’s how Swedish was. My relatives would say a word, and I’d repeat it back, maybe five times, and it still wouldn’t pass muster. It didn’t help that I could barely understand the language. Luckily the other parts of conversation, facial expressions, practicalities of the situation, pragmatic usage, gestures, logical, topical conditions, all helped a lot. I’m not sure if it’s the informal situation, or the fact that sometimes you just have to suck at something for a while, until you magically can make the right sounds.