20 Jan 2019 19:21 IST

The Tower of Babel deconstructed

The more languages each one of us knows, the better the chances of communicating more effectively

My mother-in-law had a gift for naming. That’s how the perfectly normal and capable Mrs M, with a perfectly enunciatable name, came to be referred to as ‘Moormakkalthaayi’, a morphing of mooru and makkalu and thaayi, which, in Kannada, means ‘mother of three children’. As you can guess, Mrs M had three lovely children.

When my little nephews visited from the US one summer, they chanced upon a dog that had recently had three pups. Being dog-lovers they adopted the canine family and their grandmother christened the dog-mom ‘Moormakkalthaayi’. The children were too young to be able to successfully twist their tongues around this honorific. Besides, by the time they called out, ‘Moormakkalthaayi! Moormakkalthaayi!’ she was gone from the scene of action. Their efforts threw up ‘Clathaayi’. And Clathaayi she was, then and forever.

Evolution of language

Could this be one way new languages emerge? Through mixing up and messing with the old? The Biblical story of how languages were born is well-known. Once upon a time all human beings spoke the same language. After the great flood, they migrated east and arrived in a place called Shinar, where they build a tower tall enough to reach heaven. It’s not entirely clear why, but upon seeing this, God intervenes and caused them all to speak in different tongues so they are no longer able to understand each other and the people scatter around the world along linguistic lines. It’s a strange story. However, all I know is that the huge variety of languages, despite the fact that every day so many die away, is one of the things that makes life such a rich tapestry of lives, experiences, cultures and ways of being and seeing.

Marisa Brook has written about a fascinating instance of how a group of children in Nicaragua invented their own language. This happened after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, she writes, when the Nicaraguan government started a programme for children with hearing difficulties at a special-ed centre. It was part of a larger effort to promote literacy. However, the children didn’t particularly take to the sign language lessons; some of them learned to lip-read. Most of them came with a vocabulary of individualistic, family-oriented gestures, called mimicas, and since each family would devise its own set of mimicas, it was generally virtually impossible for the children to communicate with each other.

However, once these children found themselves in a common space such as these schools, over time they themselves elaborated on their individual mimicas and created a whole new, rich vocabulary for themselves. Thus was born the Nicaraguan Sign Language, an intricate and effective tool of communication. What’s even more interesting is that studies revealed that the younger children had devised a more complex and organised system than what the older children had, proving that maximum language learning happens at an early age.

Ability to learn

In other words, small children comprehend the complexities of language and its use in a far superior fashion than we give them credit for. I saw this for myself just the other night when my friends Jinoy and Radhika visited with their eight-year-old and three-year-old boys. While the older one not only already has a remarkable vocabulary (he taught me the meaning of many words and terms that evening), the younger one showed how instinctively he could negotiate the English language, despite having been immersed only in Malayalam at home. Every time he uttered a phrase in English, his parents grew even more stunned: they’d never heard him speak so much English before!

Human beings have an innate capacity to communicate, particularly through language as we know it. With a little effort, they can learn to negotiate the trickier waters of unfamiliar languages. That’s why we should never be fearful of them, or feel threatened by them. They are the windows to new and unknown worlds and peoples. Books translated from unfamiliar languages are a stepping stone into those worlds. That’s why the art of translation is so important.

This came through at the recently held Lit For Life festival in Chennai. At a discussion around translation, I found myself sitting next to a college student — let’s call her Saeeda. What brought her to this discussion, I wondered. She said she was a student of English literature and one of the subjects they studied was Indian literature and only when they did that paper did she discover how much writing was available in Indian languages. She wanted to know more; that’s why she was at the lit fest.

Keep an open mind

Translations stand the Tower of Babel on its head, they deconstruct and reconstruct the order of the world to make it more comprehensible, more accessible, more harmonious. In an article in the July 24, 2016 edition of The Observer, Rachel Cooke quotes translator Ann Goldstein, most recently in the news for her rendering of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. (Incidentally, Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist. These novels, which have created a sensation and which will soon be on screen, comprise four titles: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.) Goldstein says: “I prefer to stay close to the text when I’m translating. Of course it should read well in English. But I’m not a novelist. I don’t feel like I’m rewriting, or creating something new. I don’t feel it’s my job to do that.”

However, Edith Grossman, who has translated the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, among others, has a different view. She says, “There is no such thing as a literal translation — languages are entirely different systems… English has its own structure and its own lexicon and Spanish has its own structure and its own lexicon, and they don’t occupy the same space. …I often think of translation as an aural/oral practice. You have to be able to hear the language of the original. You have to be able to hear the tonalities, what the language indicates about the intelligence or class of the speaker. …And then you have to be able to speak it in English. You know, some idiot asked Gregory Rabassa, García Márquez’s first translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude, if he knew enough Spanish to do it. And Gregory said: ‘You asked me the wrong question. The real question is, do I know enough English?’”

It’s an ongoing debate but one thing’s clear: there is no one way. While there are rules and tools, in the end, it’s subjective and personal. What we must remember, though, is that it’s important to read translations differently from original works for the simple reason that they are not originals. Still, they are unique.

Does this mean languages are windows to cultural experiences?