Language is more than a form of communication. It’s a form of expression, a way of life, a way of being. There’s a shared history and sense of community when two people speak the same language, a connection that an outsider will be hard pressed to feel.
What’s more, language is loaded with symbolic meaning, such as in its vernacular, dialect, irony, and unsaid truths. What’s even more, language is unique to the community that speaks it. It’s as unique as each unique individual who claims that unique language as a mother tongue.
A Story in its Original Language Versus When it’s Translated
Language isn’t just phonetics and sounds, because it captures the soul of a people, and literature is one of its greatest vehicles. By stripping a story of its mother tongue and replacing it with another, something is taken away. Not to say that translations are bad — in fact, they make that story accessible to a wider audience, which is always wonderful. But there’s an intangible aspect to the story that cannot be retrieved.
Cultural metaphors. Jokes. A shared understanding of a word. A sense of belonging. That’s all lost.
But what happens when as a member of a community, you’re unable to speak its language, so imperfect translations are your only viable option?
To be honest, you lose some of that shared sense of community and have to rely on your aunties to translate that joke that everyone got. And even then, you can’t fully comprehend why it was so funny. Same goes for written stories. Something gets lost in translation. Reading it, I know something got lost, but for the life of me I can’t put my finger on it, because it was taken away.
Why I Can’t Speak My Mother Tongue
Growing up, virtually all of my teachers were white and were seemingly convinced that speaking a language other than English at home was a felony and would prevent me from ever ever ever EVER learning to read and write in English properly. As such, I grew up speaking only English and was able to reap the social capital that comes with knowing English as a first language in America, particularly in Mississippi, where I went to high school.
However, much was lost. While I went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in English with Departmental Honors and now have a successful career as an editor, I can only speak rudimentary Gujarati, my mother tongue.
It’s a frustrating limbo to be in. I really should be better. Gujarati is, after all, the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi, who used it to express his ideas and even campaigned for a standard spelling convention, which he introduced in the 12th meeting of the Gujarati Literary Society.
When Books Cannot Be the Answer
With almost anything else in my life, I would turn to books. But books unfortunately didn’t work for me in my quest to understand jokes and tales in Gujarati. This is because I cannot read Gujarati, which uses a Sanskrit-based Devanagari script (which doesn’t have the standard horizontal line that Hindi has).
As such, my only recourse was translated fiction. But of course, there were never any novels originally written in Gujarati translated into English, at least not when I was a teenager.
My only options then were the pamphlets and booklets, which were written by local Hindu temples, that served as educational materials for kids. Ancient epics of Lord Rama defeating Ravana and accounts of Krishna having the universe in his mouth were diluted into a language that originally sought to colonize us.
I had heard these tales from my grandmother, who only ever spoke to me in Gujarati and some broken English. Something about hearing those tales from my motherland in my mother tongue by my mother’s mother tugged at me in a way that English never could. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful at the temples for providing the materials, but do I wish I could’ve read the Gujarati materials.
I’ve read some novels that were translated from Hindi to English and have found solace in those books, along with a sense of community. Even though Hindi isn’t my mother tongue, it’s close enough, and I’ll take it what I can get.
How I Have Filled the Void
My compromise was actually to read graphic novels and comics. Sometimes, words aren’t enough, but pictures can of course mean a thousand of them. As such, I relied on family members bringing me translated graphic novels of Hindu epics and depictions of famous Indians from whenever they visited India. Where the translation failed, the images made up. It’s still not a perfect compromise, but the visuals helped me fill in holes where nuances of languages couldn’t be relayed in words.
Of course comics, even those written in languages originating in the subcontinent, aren’t a perfect medium in which to relay rich, complex epics. However, for people like me who don’t have access to the original written versions, they’re a fair compromise.
At the end of the day, I’m sorry to say that translated literature, no matter how grateful I am for it, doesn’t fill that void of not being able to read my mother tongue. I acknowledge that the responsibility lies on me for prioritizing a mastery of English over Gujarati. But I also blame a public school system that seems to think that speaking a language other than English makes you less than. It does not.
I’ll continue to prioritize reading translated fiction and just letting my family members relay stories to me orally. At the end of the day, it’s better to try than to nothing at all.