Monday, May 01, 2006

More on language

I had a stroll down memory lane this weekend and bought a used CD of Depeche Mode's "Music for the Masses." This was an album (cassette) I shared with my high school boyfriend--(TMI alert!) I suppose it was the closest thing to a "make-out" tape we had. Which is kind of creepy when you think about the songs--"Never Let Me Down Again," "Strangelove," "Behind the Wheel," "I Want you Now." We were actually pretty normal. I also bought the new (newish) Cure CD. I bought it specifically for one song, though I like others. The song is called, "The End of the World." It got a little air play around the beginning of last year. In it Robert Smith sings, "I couldn't ever love you more," and within the song the phrase means both there was a limit to his love (he couldn't bring himself to love someone more), and that there was no limit to his love (it wasn't possible to love someone more). It's just amazing how the words can mean both things--tragic within the song, of course--but fascinating in terms of English and how it works.

I don't know enough of any other language to know if these paradoxes exist there as well. I know English is touted as an especially tricky language in terms of nuance. Comedian/writer Stephen Fry did a very funny sketch a very long time ago with Hugh Laurie (he of the show "House", though true fans know him better as Prince George) about whether the inherent irony in English prevented it from being used effectively as propaganda i.e. Germany and the German language.

I know that English has more descriptive words than most languages, probably because it's made up of all the other languages, and yet, there are still things that seem untranslatable--gemuchlichite (sp.) for instance, genki. Close but not quite. My husband likes Japanese writers and said once that he would like to learn Japanese because the translations seem so dry. I said that from the little I learned, the language IS very spare. It has one word for blue and green! The depth is all in the understanding of the references. There's a great Star Trek:The Next Gen. story called Darmok about a race that speaks almost entirely in cultural reference. Darmok on Gilad, for instance is understood to be an important test. Shaka, when the walls fell--a failure. As the world becomes so large that cultural reference is lost, will we still be able to talk to one another?

What We Know

I scrawled epics
When first I began to write,
Gorged blank pages
With things I had never seen:
The sea, the city, and sex,

Hearsay I had culled
Of the sea, cities, and sex
From other people.
And so my words were shadows,
Translations of translations.


(The concept and phrase, "... translations of translations..." borrowed from James Baldwin

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