Lost in translation

There are so many words that colour our lives. All of those lovely adjectives with their colour and expression, the imagery of verbs and the grounded nature of those nouns. They collide, dance around one another and create patterns, sentiments and reflections.

As an outsider in Germany, my poor German feels like I’m chopping wood badly and with blisters. Big swings and a lot of exertion just to make a small point. After a month, it is becoming easier but all too often I have moments where it disintegrates and feels like alphabet spaghetti.

Sometimes my pronunciation leads people astray – and bizarrely, the word that most frequently seems to trick people up is ‘Australien’ – (Australia). It happened last night talking about playing music back home: ‘Ich spiele Jazz in Australien’ – and all of a sudden the band thought I had some sort of Israeli music career. To imagine the different sound, think: ‘Our (as written)- strAA (drawn out, seagull-like) – lee-en (two quick half beats )’.

Despite the language and the fact that – ‘Mir fehlen die Wörter’ (words fail me), I have a good sense of what’s going on here. Freiburg hums along like many other Western cities, and life isn’t so different to back home. We share a pretty common collection of ideas, values and the outlook takes the form of rugged cheeriness.

For my colleagues in the Masters course – it’s a different story. I don’t really know what planet they’re on and so much is lost in translation.  It’s a real mixed bag of experiences and backgrounds. There are African public health specialists, Middle-Eastern architects and South American dentists.

They’re all incredibly smart people, but for most of them – speaking in English (which is how the lectures are delivered) is far from a comfortable experience. In fact, I’m the only one in class with English as their mother tongue. It makes for some bizarre moments.

The other day – a Nigerian doctor asked “Was this person born with the surname ‘Koch’ or was he named after the disease?” I wouldn’t even know where to begin to do the linguistic and cultural gymnastics required to entertain such a possibility.

Or, a couple of weeks ago, a Jordanian student made the sweeping assertion that we should disregard an article about historical analysis in urban development as ‘history is biased’. Which was exactly what the paper was arguing.

I can only imagine what the lecturers are going through! Not only are most of them having to deliver the lectures in their second language but it’s a definite exercise in cross-cultural contortion.

With language, the easy option is just to keep it simple – keep at the basics… but that way, no one ever learns. The other option is to throw yourself in there! Take a stab at the implied and learn as many adjectives as you can to grasp those colours and shades.

Language is also shaped by season. It’s definitely Autumn here. Tri-coloured leave lace the streets and people are preparing for the hibernation to come.

With shorter days and more hours inside- the question of ‘what to do’ with a slower sense of time always arises. Days can stretch into hours of learning and reflection. Equally they might also be about connecting with those obvious drivers of happiness. Either way, this is the season for contemplative language which is rare in our 21st century transactional culture.

As for my Winter in Freiburg, I think I’ll keep chopping the linguisitc wood and just hope there is enough for a fire….and I should probably learn the word for translation. 20171005_180233

(Pegasus enjoying Autumn – Freiburg, German)


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