February 21, 2012

Found In Translation

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Whenever I told people that I was going abroad, they always said, “You’re going to end up falling in love.” In fact, my grandmother was convinced that I was going to come back impregnated by a virile Italian and often sent me Amanda Knox clippings to warn me of the dangers of succumbing to Roman Fever. Luckily, I managed to return to the States unscathed by aggressive Italian sperm. I prefer blondes anyway.

She did have reason for concern, though. Months before I even boarded the plane, I began hearing stories of students who go abroad single, only to return head-over-heels in love.  My abroad program alone produced at least three ongoing international love affairs. It’s true that being abroad leaves you feeling all young and free and European and vulnerable to love, but cross-cultural relationships happen even here in the thralls of normalcy. Just the other day, my little sister called me and told me that our father’s best friend had recently married our Portuguese cleaning lady. Straight out of Love Actually, I tell ya.

Such relationships are enormously romantic, yet completely baffling to me. As the product of an interracial relationship, I’m all about crossing cultures, embracing diversity and putting differences aside for love, but there’s still one barrier that I personally can’t imagine breaking down. Though well traveled, I’m still basically monolingual and got a 1 on the Spanish AP to prove it.  I can hardly fathom communicating with someone on such a deeply intimate and romantic level if we don’t even speak the same language.

But I do remember being abroad and the feeling of foreign syllables rolling off of your tongue, hearing them spoken in your voice. Looking back on how my own interactions with Italians actually went down, I’m starting to think that there might be something valuable in the communication gap after all. Instead of blurting out the first thing that came to mind, when I spoke Italian I had to pause and think about what I really wanted to say, choosing my words carefully and my grammar even more carefully. More often than not, I spoke simply, clearly and directly because it was the only way I knew how.

The slight delay of communication that is expected with a language barrier ended up giving me an excuse, a reason to think before speaking. Everything was a little premeditated and less organic but a little more deliberate, and perhaps that much more meaningful. In relationships between people with the same native language, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the other person exactly how you feel; we tend to evade meaning with sarcasm and insinuation and roundabout phrasing. But in another language, you can’t really be subtle or passive aggressive when you have a limited number of words and sentence structures to go on. While actual content is often lost in the verbal fillers — the ums, likes and you knows of fluent conversation — speaking a foreign language brings you back to the heart of the matter.

The very process of translation makes you go over your thoughts, your words. Most importantly, translating makes you think about what the words you’re saying really mean to you, how they are understood and the feelings they express in any language. I miss you. Mi manchi. You are missing from me.

To make sure we were all following, my Italian professor always used to ask the class, “Ci siamo?” Are we together? Are you guys with me? And we’d all respond in unison, “Si, si, ci siamo.” We got you. We’re on the same page. We understand you. We’re speaking the same language.

Thinking back to those unlikely couples, I’ve come to think that their means of communication was not stunted or faltered, but just different, and maybe even a little better. What’s more important in a relationship than meaningful communication? Maybe it’s not such an awful thing to make everything a little less instantaneous and trade in superfluous word vomit for something a little more thoughtful. It’s a bit romantic and brings you back to the time of international love letters, when every word was a choice and every sentence held meaning. The distance between writer and reader allows the writer time to introspect upon the message he wants to convey and the words he wants to use to do so. The language barrier mimics this distance in a way, giving an extra split-second to reflect and compose. You say only what you mean and you mean everything you say.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a page out of the books of the aforementioned foreign lovers. How would our current relationships change or improve if we were more conscious of our feelings and how we translate them into words? Even when English flows freely, maybe our first priority should be to take a second to think about what we want to say, how we want to say it, and whether we’re actually speaking the same language. Ci siamo?

Original Author: Rebecca Lee