I am a language few speak. Figuratively, I am. First, I’m a person. I should have started with that, no? As a person, I am a language few speak. There. I only became a translator by trade because, well, I was doing it anyway. Day in, day out. There are few of my ilk left in this world. Individuals who must translate the world. I must. For me to understand, you see? And to be understood, you’ll understand.
Between these lines lies the disconnect. We are lost you and I. Before we even begin. Lost. Between the folds of translation, like coins. Like crumbs. But since there is only one of me, I suppose I am lost. At a loss. And you are the one doing the losing, I think. You know? In a way, I can only be found if someone knows I’m missing. But I do not cease to exist. It’s not dyslexia the way the world is jumbled. There is a sense to both the world I perceive and yours.
I always wonder why so much of who I am needs to get simplified, edited out, so I can fit. Fit inside conception, your conception. Norms, that’s what we’re talking about. Norms. Not How-is-it-going-Norm norms. Social norms. A pressure of sorts, if you’re barometrically-minded. A cookie-cutter for the culinarily-minded. My me you get is star-shaped. Heart-shaped, or whateveryouwish-shaped. That’s how I translate myself.
Meanwhile, my you, well, there’s a lot of those. Yous? Meanwhile, my yous are translated by studying the pressure. The cookie-cutter itself. I don’t think I’m being facetious or disrespectful here, am I? That’s just how the world is. Or maybe you don’t see it as clearly as I do. Let’s see if I can sum it up right. First, you are moulded by the cookie-cutter and then, when you grow up, you are granted the opportunity to change the shape of the mould for the next cookies to be cut. Which, by then, no one really does. Let’s be honest. Revolutionary fires burn low on the other side of the crest of life. Why? Think about it. Who doesn’t invariably choose the mountain pass?
Oh, sure, when you’re young, all you have eyes for is the summit. You fight against all the elements to get there. To prove that you can. Naturally, you despise everyone who chose the pass instead of the summit. Even though that’s how you came to be born. The weakness of it. Luckily, you’re a tough cookie. Right? Made of sterner stuff? You rebel against all conventions, against, well, the cookie-cutter itself. It’s so honourable, so heroic. To be a protagonist. But, when the pass shows up, you realise how much more effort it required than you had previously thought. Just to reach it. And the worse of it is that you are convinced, convinced that you had it in you to reach the summit. And that’s when a little mould called ifonly makes its appearance. No, not cookie-cutter-type mould. Fungus mould. The evil kind. The kind that you don’t notice right away, but has probably been there all along. Along for the ride. The one that makes itself known when you assert, full of confidence and zeal: I could still reach the summit! A noble, valiant sentiment. I could still reach the summit! You want to scream it. I could still reach the summit! But you can’t scream it because the tail end of the sentence is too heavy. I could still reach the summit… Ifonly I didn’t have to also fight against cookie-cutter norms. And now, suddenly both moulds have joined forces against you. One trying to clip the edges of you. Those edges you worked so hard to cultivate. Those edge you thought were you. The other mould subverting your noblest intentions, corrupting your last reserves of will. A vicious cycle cycling viciously. Until the most treacherous thought of all occurs to you. If only there were no Ifonlys. Now, well, now it’s too late, isn’t it? The notion has settled in. Defeat.
In this state of world-weary exhaustion, beaten down, hairy with mould, edges cut off, you discover you’ve become a bitter cookie. Full of cynicism. You look at all those weak cookies, weaker than you, less noble; who were content within the confines of the social norms. The backside of life will be so comfortable for them. With tons of fire left in them. Oh, you think, that’s what the cookie-cutter is for... Now you get it. And it hurts. The irony of it melts your chocolate chips. You look at the summit. Or rather, it looks down on you. Then, you glimpse what awaits over the saddle of the mountain pass. The long descent into the deepening gloom of life. And, with one last look at the tooth of the summit, you make the smart choice. The hard choice. The brave choice.
Cookie-cutting your losses, you dampen your revolutionary flame into a smouldering ember, hoping it will suffice to survive the cruel backside of life. To light your way. To warm you. To give you courage.
Did I sum it up right? More or less? Every one of yous gets a version of this story. And I know what you’re thinking. What about me? Am I one of those who reach the summit? Is that why I can talk so casually about all this? Do I look down on you from my high-horse of a mountain? Nope.
Perhaps now you can understand why I’m a translator. Some things are just clearer with an outside perspective. To be one of yous is a drive. I often envy this drive. I wasn’t born with it. It forces a type of linear perspective which I also envy. When the car is already rolling when you get in, what you learn is to guide it in specific directions. That’s the in and out of it. The pleasure of it. The limitation.
I have no built-in necessity to move. Oh, I’m swayed, sure. But never unambiguously. Never quite towards. You need a box to be inside the box. Even to be outside the box, you need a box. Boxes, norms. We’re talking about norms. I feel them too, you know? That’s why I can speak of them. But only when I try to translate myself. I know how hard it is to live inside a cookie-cutter box of norms. That’s what I have to translate myself into for you to understand me. But, I confess, I can’t always find value in what is left of me to understand.
That’s why I try to do you justice, when I translate. I want to offer you what I don’t have. I am good at it too. I can translate very vivid definitions of all the yous, but mostly working on a word to word, person to person basis. Wam! But things happen so fast. So we get lost. Things get blurry around the edges, with speed.
For example, where has courtesy gone? We are meant to preamble folks, or have you forgotten? We are meant to introduce, to greet. Exchanging platitude, small-talk, is not a habit that has trickled down the ages merely for television series to mock. How am I to know, on a nano-second basis what ‘one’ means when you say ‘have a good one’? See? No one can translate that fast. What am I suppose to quip back when someone says ‘god, the world these days…’ out of nowhere when we walk by one another? Context, folks. Preamble!
But, I’m fast too. Not everything escapes my notice. It’s just that translation is a focus of sorts one applies to the world. Linger around the edges and you’ll risk being blurry around the edges. It’s pretty self-evident, when you think about it, no? That’s just how the universe works when you linger in my orbit. Why? Because, well, well, surely you can’t expect me to translate everything around me? The whole world? Go, eat your soup. I’m not doing that! No way, sweet Mary and José.
So that’s how it is. To most people, I’m once removed. Like a foreign currency. I am not granted status on my own terms. Like ‘How much is 100 Yen?’ ‘Why Bill or Henry, or George, 100 Yen is worth 86.9565217 times one Canadian Dollar.’ Always this most debilitating calculation that makes people make a face. That’s what I see when I look at people. That scrunched ‘cannot compute’ face of conversion into a known currency. Always that conversion… It’s demeaning, really. To be roughly translated into something else in order to make any sense to anyone. I don’t really begrudge it. It’s just, I can feel myself becoming pictogram-like. Vague. General. In real-time. Like when you fall slowly enough to experience the whole thing as it happens, but fast enough that there’s little you can do about it.
But, who is someone? Really, I mean. Who could maintain any measure of individuality, when seen in such a broad lens? A cat is not a cat. Right. Can you fathom it? A cat is not a cat. No sir it’s not. It just isn’t. When roughly translated, a cat is a Mammalia. Do you see? Or worse, an Animalia. Nothing to get your nails under. Nothing to wrap your arms around. Will it scratch? Is it likely to eat you whole? Who knows! Could be anything from a cat to a mouse to a rhinoceros.
It’s exhausting being a language no one else speaks. Like a towel retired to a rag. The indignity of it is soft but wearing. The things I could be. The uses I could be put to. A part of. I dramatise. It’s just that I’m a translator by trade and a translated by nature. You understand? What else could I be? But still, therein lies a prickling irony, lies it not? I’m always behind on my work. And so I am always behind on myself. On who I am. Who I ought to be. How can I not be? And if things keep going at this rate, I might forget to be anything else. Than late. Than translator. Than translated.
Even as we speak, conversationally, I am behind. There’s a discrepancy there. Like a foreign correspondent experiencing a delay. That’s why I touch my ear and nod a lot. Hardly anyone notices. And if they do, they allow it. Why wouldn’t they? No one truly speaks the language that I am. It is expected. If it is remembered as more than merely an annoyance. In my darker days, if I’m honest, I can’t fight the feeling that my unique skills are no more than a hindrance. Oh, I can be of use. But just not in the way I know I can be. But wait a minute. I’m bypassing myself. Why should I be of use? Why should I? Can’t I just be? Even if I am a dead language?
Oh, I shouldn’t say that. I’m endangered, at most. There is a complexity to me no one bothers with. And if they do it’s out of sympathy. Yuk. No, thank you. See, it’s just that, alone, there is no need to translate. I can be me. All of me. Nothing lost. So that being me has become a relief I seek with increasing yearning, and a state I fail to experience with dismaying frequency. To the rest of the world, I’ll never be anything else than a not fully-fledged idea. Why should I care? Why should I go through the draining, demeaning, reductionist act of translating myself into being, and for whom? Why should I? I am self-contained. I can express all sorts of things. Who says a language needs to be spoken to be alive?
I know when cats walk by. That’s all I’ll say. I know that a cat is a cat when it walks by. That’s the extent of my commitment. And you’ll know too. That I know. I’ll say: look there’s a cat. And if you can’t return the favour, I won’t fault you for it.
How is it that I am alone? I know… I don’t know. You know, there are just so many of you. I spend so much energy translating your busy world. So that I have so little energy left to translate myself to you in a coherent way. So I translate myself into a likeable oddity and call it quits. Bowing down to never being fully understood, and so, never fully loved. That is to say, I must resign myself to being loved as one loves something quaint, queer… quizzical, and other such Q words. Never not a quotation of myself. And like a quotation mark or a Q, there is a convenient handle there for you to hang onto, but that somehow never leads into who I am. Sorry, I’m a philosopher of the letter too, even though my trade is word- and sentence-based. That’s another part of me that must be left out.
Everything is a mechanism for me. Nothing is who I am. My personality must be an adaptation. Like those plays where Zeus wears a suit and tie. I’m connecting with my audience. Doing my best anyway. And it cheapens me. And it’s exhausting. I’m a walking translated translator that translates by trade and nature. And if I’m not careful, by wanting to be good at my trade and translate myself in a way that does me justice, then I run the risk of becoming the mechanism. Of becoming the adaptation. Of becoming the suit and tie. Think of it! All of Zeus, but what you get is only suit and tie. Anyone can be suit and tie. The thought of it makes me want to be in my pyjamas. Alone. Really alone. Alone I am me without effort. Not for your benefit. Yes, perhaps you can imagine what my sigh is like in such moments. Eternal, deep, sublime. Why can’t it always be this simple? Shouldn’t I be allowed to be me? But, of course, I’m being naive. It never doesn’t matter enough for me to try. I can’t relax one second and run the risk of being mistranslated. I mean worse than I already am. It’s constant diplomacy. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare.
Perhaps this is what I need. To be foreign, anyway. I mean, regardless. That would be the perfect cover story. Perhaps I can be me in another country where I am expected to be different. Where my differences can be the one’s to lose themselves in translation. Wouldn’t that be something? Or maybe I could start speaking in an accent so that I may be forgiven my delay, my eccentricities. Oh, to start again. But, no. I can’t even entertain the thought without a yawn for the tedium of it all. What I need isn’t more work. More disguises. More inauthenticity.
No. In the end, there is and always will be just one of me. That’s got to count for something, no? A mistranslated translator I will ever be. And the world will just have to make do with me.
Copyright © 2021 by Etienne Robert