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.