For the Love of Words

As my mom likes to say, after 40 years of being in the country, “I don’t know English and I forgot how to speak Polish.” My parents’ first language is Polish but they also speak English at home.  As with most immigrants, my parents eventually spliced both languages to create a third.  So I grew up translating both.  I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I developed a love for words.

 One time I was sitting with my mother watching a TV show about a blind man who summited Mount Everest.  His tragic and triumphant story unfolded before us.  My mother and I both had tears trailing down our faces. She turned to me, dabbed her runny nose with the balled up paper towel from her finished apple and said, “Can you amazing?”

 I laughed and said, “You mean, imagine.”

 My mother had already turned her attention back to the TV. Since then, I’ve often tossed that phrase around in my mind. I got the feeling that my mother had somehow captured a deeper understanding. Of course, I thought she meant to say imagine, but perhaps in her back and forth of searching for the right word to translate, she came up with a better one.  Could I amazing? I could. I really could, because if you are thinking about a blind man summiting Everest you’ve got to do more than imagine.

 Translating words back and forth from Polish to English has always offered me a way to peek in to a richer world.  When something is lost in translation, I think it’s because the value of a word cannot be calculated to its fullest to a non-native speaker. Too many nuances of tone and meaning are lost when the translation is direct. Bouncing between two languages is like being able to see a canvas instead of a thread.

Take for example the phrase, ‘of course’ in English. It’s not a particularly exciting phrase. In Polish, oczywiście means ‘of course or obviously’. When I say the Polish word, I associate other Polish words with it. It’s like they are all holding hands. The sounds or roots of other words float in my mind and paint a more colorful and layered patchwork of meaning for me. Anyone who speaks another language will know exactly what I am talking about. (I want to hear about your favorite words that sound beautiful in your head when you translate them. Please leave me a comment if you have one.) For me, Oczywiście conjures up the words eyes (oczy) and to see (widzieć)- as if to say, “eye’s view”. For me it’s like saying I see it, therefore it must be true.  In other words, obviously.

 I like layered meanings, more poetic.

9 comments on “For the Love of Words

  1. Sraah says:

    Ghenet, I am sooooooo excited to read your writing!!! I can’t wait to read more.

  2. Adam says:

    I am very thankful that growing up I picked up enough Polish to carry on a fluent conversation. From time to time, I still laugh when I learn that so many words I thought were Polish are in fact the product of “the 3rd language”. For example Cara means car and streeta means street or so I thought for so many years :-)

  3. Denise says:

    Jannett, this is beautiful– on so many levels. As a speaker of 2 languages myself, I totally get your love of words and the insights gained from translating. The story behind the title of you blog is both moving and heart-warming.

    I can’t wait to read more. :-)

  4. Ann says:

    I love reading these.

    Punjabi was my first “second language”. I loved the revelation that language is “canvas rather than thread”.
    My favorites: The words pucca and kutsha (probably spelled wrong in English) are antonyms that describe so many aspects of life in Punjab. Eg. ripe fruit (pucca) vs green, cooked food vs raw or poorly cooked, paved roads vs dirt roads, fine fabric vs homespun, a job well done vs poorly done. Lovely pair of descriptors!

  5. Marek says:

    Jak ja lubie czytacz co ti rajtujesz! Moja rodzina tesz mowi w jezykiem half-na-pol! Wiesz, to jest sezon na peachesi, poszlem i odrywalem pare od dzewa, i zabejkowalem spanialem pieyeh. Szkoda zie mieszcasz tak daleko, bo jest smaczne z ejs kremu. Dlaczego mami kupic z grosernia jak mozna sam zrobic w domu?

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Dziekuje Marek! Rozumiem wszystko ala ja slaby pisam po Polsku. Potrzebe pomoc pisac…mam slownik i mam telephone do Mama i Tata! ha. Chcialbym lepiej pisac. Prawdziwy! For real.

  6. Totally agree. I have a love of other languages (without the skill to master them), and one of the best parts of knowing different ways of saying the same thing is the depth, or dimension, that an alternative version brings to the topic. “I love you” and “ti amo” may mean the same thing, but they reflect different priorities as well as the complexity of the thought.

    I was in Warsaw 2 weeks ago. Where were you when I needed to talk to those drunk teenagers? :)

  7. Mariam says:

    I laughed out loud reading this and read it for my brother-in-law visiting me. I grew up with two languages at home (Arabic + Circassian) and then immigrated to Canada and had to learn English. It did really register at first that landing in Quebec meant learning French also. After English I decided that was it and I left. I love what your mom says: “I don’t know English and I forgot how to speak Polish.” I totally feel like that sometimes.

    Above David talked about how “I love you” reflects different priorities about the thought of love in different lauguages. And you talked about “of course” -if I see it, it must be true. So, I have to share with you my favorite word/translation for ‘love’. Love and the word to see is same root in Circassian. So to say love you say: seeing clearly. And to say to someone ‘I love you’, you literally say: I see you clearly.

    I see you clearly Jannett.

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Wow. “I see you clearly.” that knocks my socks off. Perhaps one of the most beautiful ways I have ever heard I love you.
      Thank you for sharing Mariam. I’m glad to know you are out there reading.

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