June 26, 2006

Fun with Farsi

This guy, Tamim Ansary, who is bilingual in English and Farsi is always talking about the ways one language can say things another language can't say. He makes me laugh. Here are some bits from one article:

What's in a word?
Translation assumes that humanity has some finite collection of meanings in common and that each language has a word for each meaning. Actually, of course, words denote things people have noticed, and different peoples have noticed different things.

Last summer, I was in Colorado with a bunch of my Afghan cousins, sitting on a lawn and lazing away the summer afternoon. As the light sank, one cousin said, "Let's go indoors. I'm getting qukh."

My Farsi has faded somewhat in the many years since I left the Farsi-speaking world, and qukh was new to me. "What is qukh?"

"Well," said my cousin, "you know, how if you sit on grass long enough, especially late in the day, the moisture rising from the earth makes the fabric of your pants damp?"


"And you know how the damp fabric clings to your skin?"


"And when you pull the fabric away, your skin feels kind of bumpy and itchy?"


"Well, that's qukh!"

Now, this usage may seem so precise and limited that one would rarely find a use for it, even if the word existed in English. But the very next day, driving to Aspen, my back was sweating against the vinyl seat; it made the shirt stick to my skin; and after a few hours I had to pull over because--well, I was feeling a bit qukh. Since then, I have noticed ever so many instances of this phenomenon.

The trouble with translation

Of course, English could adopt this word, or any word, if English speakers found it useful. That's what languages do. But once a word comes into English, it is used in real-life English-language situations, in letters and literature and conversations, and thus accumulates associations that make it an organic part of the experience of English-speaking people. These associations and connections, these capillaries of meaning, seat the word in the living flesh of the English language. And every word in a language has such capillaries connecting it to all the rest of the language. We don't see them but if we know the language, we feel them: They are a part of its meaning.

This hits me every time I play around with translation. Once, for example, I was trying to translate a ghazal, a sonnet-length lyric, by the 14th-century poet Hafez from Persian (a.k.a. Farsi, a.k.a. Dari) into English. Translated literally, the first two lines of this celebrated poem go as follows:

If that Turk from Shiraz were to capture my heart
I would give away Samarkand and Bokhara for her Hindu mole.

I suppose it's no use telling you that this couplet thrums with mysterious erotic resonance in Persian. Few English speakers will be convinced, especially about the Eros.

But why is so much lost? After all, practically half the words in this couplet are names. They sound and mean the same in English as in Persian. Samarkand, Bokhara, and Shiraz are cities you will find on any English-language map. And even in English, Turks are Turks and Hindus are Hindus.

Some translators fuss with synonyms to inject rhythm and rhyme into the lines, hoping to recapture the music of the original. It's no use. At the end of the day, you're still left with that Turk. And that mole.

And that's the problem. The Western ear comes to this couplet with associations drawn from Western history and literature. In the West, ever since the Crusades, Turk has meant "brutal menace on the eastern frontiers of Christendom." In real life, Turks include men, women, and children, but in the network of English-language associations, Turk is fundamentally male--a brawny, scimitar-wielding male. Those invisible capillaries of meaning feed all that extra meaning into the mere word.

In the Persian network of associations, Turk is more complicated. Even there, the label brings power to mind, Turks having formed the ruling aristocracy of every Muslim society from Delhi to Istanbul for 800 years. But it's not a shadowy Other looming beyond the borders, it's our own, familiar power elite--kings and queens presiding over courts, doling out patronage and favors. You might say that in Hafez's world, Turk evoked a feeling roughly like American might in today's industrialized West.

And in those same societies, Persians also commanded an authority of their own, based on a supposedly more ancient cultural sophistication. They contributed poetry, art, perfume, an appreciation of gardens--and Shiraz epitomized the romantic Persian city. It was the Venice of the Persian world.

Samarkand and Bokhara may be mere place names to the Western sensibility, but to the Asiatic ear, they evoke the same mythic splendor and decadent luxury aroused in the West by such names as Byzantium, Babylon, or Rome. Hindu filters into the Western sensibility through the British colonial experience, but for Persians Hindus were within a familiar civilization, interlaced, highly relevant, and yet…exotic. An analogous figure for Westerners might be the Japanese: clearly industrialized, clearly modern, and yet…exotic.

Finally, there's that mole. Westerners don't go for moles. No, no, we just don't. It's no better if they're Hindu moles. No mole at all is the look we prefer. No accounting for taste. Frankly, 30 years ago, I never would have guessed that stylish young American women would one day sport tattoos or that guys would find tattooed women attractive.

In short, to convey any hint of what Hafez was up to in that famous couplet of his, a translator might have to go with something like this:

If that American in Venice were to coo "I love you too…"
I would barter Babylon and Rome for her Japanese tattoo.

But would that really count as a translation? Now you've got the capillaries--maybe--but you've lost the word. You see the problem.

Kaleidoscope world

And the problem goes beyond vocabulary. A view of the world is embedded in the very structure of a language, any language. Pronouns, for example, have no gender in Farsi. A religious statement never forces or lets you assign a gender to God. In French, by contrast, even bicycles have gender, as do abstract ideas, and their modifiers must conform. What do fluent speakers of this language see? I have trouble imagining.

In Turkish, I am told, the first vowel in a sentence determines what all the other vowels in the sentence will be. Change the first word and the whole sentence sounds different. Hmm.

Tahitian consists almost entirely of separate word parts that stand alone. You need a whole sentence to express all the meanings that English can pack into a single highly inflected compound verb.

By contrast, Finnish lets you combine more or less any number of word bits and affixes to create single words that express what would take whole sentences to say in English. Juoksentelisinkohan, a combination of seven little word parts, is a single word that means, "I wonder if I should run about aimlessly?"

A French teacher in Colorado once said to me, "My students keep asking, 'How do you say this or that in French?' And I'm at a loss because the real answer is, 'You don't.'"


gwen said...


Tias said...

Hey there...I'm a friend of jbarcher. :)

This post is really good. :D I've studied Spanish in great depth and enough Hindi to get by...And I know exactly what you mean. Languages are so beautiful, so complex and so rich--they communicate so much about a culture and a way of thinking and because of that, they don't ever perfectly line up.

Personally, I think in both Spanish and English depending on the situation--and the way I think in Spanish is totally different from the way I think in English. It isn't just the order of words or anything like that...It's much deeper, much richer. When I think in Spanish, I'm not just an American using Spanish, but an American thinking like a Spaniard...adopting the nuances of a Spanish worldview.

And...on translating stuff, especially poetry, YES! That example is great. :D I can never bring myself to translate Spanish literature for my friends (even though I keep insisting that they read some of it), because...so much is lost in the process of doing so. I can try, but it's impossible to capture the meaning and the beauty of Spanish in English.

Anyhow...Good post. :)

Elindomiel said...

Thanks, but I hope you mean in picking the material, because I can only hope to someday write stuff like that! You should look up Tamim Ansary and read his other articles, I just picked my favourite pieces. ;)

And yes, I totally agree. I'm just starting to get to fluency-as-in-getting -your-point-across-like-a-barbarian level in Spanish, and in my other languages I'm really still tasting them, I guess. But I love it! :D