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Translating Life into Words

© Laura L. Mays Hoopes

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Translating is notoriously difficult. What is easy to say in one language may be missing or require a long circumlocution in another language. I’ve been told that ancient Scottish had no word for “no,” for example. One language may have many words for fine grades of meaning that correspond to one noun in a different language. A metaphor in one language may lose its impact because the words sound dull or bland in a different language. Capturing a slice of life in words is just as hard; it has a lot in common with translation.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Australia. Ostensibly we speak the same language, English. I had to learn about “brekkie” and “footy” and a host of other words to understand what I heard. But that was nowhere near as hard as trying to say in words what I saw at the Great Barrier Reef. In one sense it was easy. I could just say, “So many fish, so many corals.” You’d then think, “So what?” My real job isn’t just to say it, but to say it in a way that let’s you imagine what I experienced. But I’m a biologist who grew up running wild in the fields and streams of Burlington, North Carolina, who fished and crabbed at the beach south of Myrtle Beach, NC and collected box turtles from the swamps along the road on the way there and back. You are bringing different baggage along, and things that might resonate with me, you won’t know about or care about.

Something I have learned in all my recent writing classes is the role of specific details in trying this challenging job of translating my experience into words for you to read. It’s tempting to think that using generalizations would connect to more people’s experiences: everyone has seen a sunset, but not everyone has seen the sunset over Cairns, Queensland, Australia. So wouldn’t a general sunset come closer to connecting with the reader’s experience? No, strangely enough, the more specifically I can describe the sunset at Cairns, with its few puffy clouds lighted pink on their plump bottoms, the burgeoning mangrove swamps with dense lime-green branches and errant knees sticking up everywhere, the ‘big sky’ feeling of looking out over half an earth of ocean towards Hawaii and the USA, the low, stucco and glass buildings looking like San Diego’s except that they are off white rather than pink and blue, the squawking black and white magpies that suddenly reveal lovely voices as they fly through the pink sky towards their roosts in Norfolk Island pines, the more you actually have a chance to feel some of what I felt, and the more you connect my experiences with aspects of what you’ve already seen and felt.

So, I’ve learned to love the details. My travel notebook is full of quick descriptions of things I’ve seen, things people have said, lists of funny names of things, lists of breakfast items on a menu.. I may or may not ever use these details in my writing, but they are ready in case I need them. I wrote down these names from a drink menu in Katoomba, for example: Toohey New, Wirra Wirra Reisling, Snapper Point Shiraz Malbec Cabernet, Madfish Shiraz.

At a demonstration of didgeridoo playing at the Australian Museum in Sydney, I wrote down that the performer had plastered his dark body with white clay so that distinct hand and whole finger shapes made lines across every limb and echoed his ribs. I could see through the didgeridoo; it has no reeds. He made it sound like a dingo, a hopping kangaroo, a prancing emu. He taught three children to dance in time to his booming bass punctuated with clapsticks, while they acted out emu courtship (he didn’t call it that). He said there were 200 aborigine languages and none of them had the word didgeridoo. He suggested the instrument had come from elsewhere and been adopted by the indigenous Australians. Wikipedia, I noted upon my return, disagreed, citing an article about how images of the instrument in aboriginal rock art were at least 1500 years old. That made me think about why the performer might have wanted to believe the instrument wasn’t invented by his people. Was it because he doesn’t see aborigines as one people? He certainly talked a lot about that idea.

Looking at a painting in the museum after the show, I wrote down that aborigine women hunted honey ants with pajara bowls and long sticks, and camped out waiting to find the honey ants. I noted that I was amazed at the detail with which the artist drew in all the feet and body segments of the ants in their stylized underground burrows, while representing the women as a rainbow shape. Who knows if I will need these details? But even now, reading them helps me recall the scene in the museum.

So, enjoy your writing, and think about carrying a notebook to collect details as well as ideas you may write out in odd bits of time. It can help with the hard job of translating experience into effective words.