I used to think that translation was an obvious, straightforward thing. A science more than an art.
You know, you take a word in one language and find the meaning of it in another. Easy.
Transliteration is a bit different – ]it’s not about finding the meaning of words but about pronouncing them in another language, using a different alphabet. Transliteration changes the letters from one alphabet or language into the corresponding, similar-sounding characters of another alphabet so you can say the word out loud, phonetically. It’s more complex.
There’s also this other thing, where the exact same word has different meanings in different places. I’m not sure if there’s a term for it, but after today, our family will be calling this phenomenon “the milkshake principle.”
Earlier today we were sitting at a sidewalk café, with menus only in French. Jaspar squealed all of a sudden, as he noticed a word he knew and loved on the menu – milkshake! When the waiter came, Jaspar sat up straight on his little his rattan chair, the café table up to his chest, and asked the waiter confidently if he could please have a chocolate milkshake. Shortly thereafter, to his utter bewilderment, he received his milkshake…but it wasn’t really a milkshake.
Specifically, it was not an ice-cream-y frozen blended American style milkshake, but instead, basically a glass of gritty chocolate milk with ice cubes and a layer of foam on top.. To be fair, it did look like the result of milk that had been briefly shaken.
In France, milkshake did not, apparently, mean milkshake. It meant this other thing, a thing that Jaspar did not like or want at all.
When the waiter circled back to our table a few minutes later, Jaspar wanted to discuss. We sat back and we (his crazy proud parents) watched the conversation unfold.
Jaspar: “Um hi excuse me, but I ordered a milkshake.” (points to glass holding debatable milkshake)
Waiter, confused: “Ah oui, this is milkshake.” (also points to glass holding debatable milkshake)
Jaspar: “But that’s not a milkshake actually.”
Waiter: “Why yes, it is!”
Jaspar: “No, I don’t think so.”
Waiter: “Hmm Ok. What do you think is a milkshake then?”
[Jaspar explains politely the differences in his idea of a milkshake and the French version in front of him. Makes impressive hand gestures. Emphasizes inclusion of ice cream. Mentions, in a no-pressure kind of way, how sometimes there is even whipped cream on top.]
Waiter nods, going along with it. Clearly this guy has kids.
Waiter: “Ah, I see. Well what can I do for you my friend?”
Jaspar: “Well can I give my milkshake back and get a lemonade instead?”
Waiter: “Bien sur, monsieur.”
And then the waiter leaves, and a few minutes later, returns with…lemonade that is not actually lemonade. Jaspar smiles uncertainly and thanks him, and is left with some fizzy sugar water, like watered down Sprite.
Jaspar drank water with his lunch.
The rest of the day we’ve approached things with a little more openness and wonder.Would a subway in France actually be a subway? Would a trampoline be a trampoline? (Inspired by some time in Le Jardin des Tuileries.) Would a t-shirt be a t-shirt? Had, theoretically, a dinosaur been a dinosaur?
At the end of the day, we were slowly making our way back to the subway (which is actually a subway) when we passed a a family on the street near the l’Obélisque de Louxor. A sign and a cup sat at their feet. Their need required no translation, and our boys asked us if they could give some money. The family – a tired father, young mother, toddler son, infant daughter – nodded and said “merci” as the coins dropped into the cup, and our boys waved and smiled at them.
As we walked away Cyrus stopped suddenly and said, “Wait they just said Thank You but I didn’t say You’re Welcome. I forget, how do you say that in French?” I told him the words, and mentioned how “de rien” translated to something like “it’s nothing.” Cyrus was not satisfied. In fact he was upset that once again, “you’re welcome” was not “you’re welcome.” Cyrus wanted to know how to say, literally, “you are welcome” and nothing more or less because, he thought, saying “it’s nothing” felt sort of rude, like you were telling the person who said “merci” that the thing they appreciated didn’t matter.
He had a point. Of course, that gesture did matter, both to Cyrus and to the family. And, while I wasn’t sure how to explain it to Cyrus in that moment, I bet that if he had chosen to go back and say “de rien” to them, it would have meant the same thing to the family as “you’re welcome” means to Cyrus. But to our son, those same words, translated directly, meant something different to him. We kept walking.
We’re two days in, and our goal is to have exactly these kinds of discussions with our kids everyday, about belief, and meaning, and identity, and so much else. Getting tripped up on the imperfections of translation – including “the milkshake principle” – will be unavoidable for us on this trip. It’s probably going to happen a lot. It’ll happen even more in places where none of us know the local language or customs, or when we’re talking about religions, and the divine, not just what’s on a restaurant menu.
We are all going to have to work extra hard not to make assumptions, and to double-check that we really understand what someone else means – especially when the topic is something invisible, or sacred, or rarely spoken of. I look forward to this. I look forward to training my sons to use those muscles that will help them grow in their ability to listen more carefully, ask better questions, and overall find a deeper connection to others and their truths. I believe that it’s the best way for them become deeper thinkers and believers themselves. And, I believe it’s a sort of redemptive practice in the world, to insist on understanding another person as authentically as possible. I want them to be ambassadors of intentional inquisitiveness, of respectful curiosity, of wonder at others’ experiences.
What I expect, too, is this: when we dig deep enough, and stretch ourselves to understand the toughest differences, we will inevitably hit upon the universal. This is when we discover the things in others’ experiences, in other cultures, other places, that resonate so deeply, in the end they need no translation. There are some precious truths that are knowable, and shareable, without a ton of qualifications or explanations or hand gestures. Some things mean the same thing everywhere.
Just not milkshakes.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.