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Found in Translation


noun: the process of translating words or text from one language into another; the conversion of something from one form or medium into another.

Over the past few days, our local sponsorship group has begun the process of helping our new Syrian friends take their first steps in Canada. We welcomed them to our city on a brutally cold and foggy Friday afternoon. Several times as I was driving them from the airport to the home we had prepared for them, I wondered what must have going through their minds as they looked out on the frosty white scenes that greeted them. Have they dropped us off at the North Pole?!

I couldn’t ask them what they were thinking, of course because I speak zero Arabic and they speak next to no English. And this has been foremost among the challenges in these first few days. I am finding that it is incredibly frustrating to be unable to communicate. A few of our dear Muslim friends had been at the house on that first day to translate, and this was immensely helpful. But on several occasions since, I have dropped by on my own to see how they are doing. Once we get past “hello” and “how are you?” and “was the house warm enough last night?” we often end up just sitting and smiling at each other. My new friends always insist that I stay for coffee. And so we sit around the table, smiling and struggling together across a chasm of incomprehension. Sometimes, through a combination of Google Translate on my phone and hand gestures, we can make a bit of headway. But at least as often we just end up grinning and shaking our heads at how the app has translated our speech. No, that’s not what I meant. Not even close…

And even when we do have translation help from Arabic-speaking friends, I often fear that there are things lost in translation—things that I mean that either do not come through or fail to be communicated in the way that I mean them. Sometimes the answer to the question bears only a slight resemblance to what was originally asked. Sometimes I want to know more, but it’s hard to talk beyond shorter spurts of communication. And it’s hard to maintain a normal conversational feel when there is an extra stage of translation inserted into every few sentences.

There is so much that I want to know. I want to hear about these families’ lives in Syria before the war. I want to know how the war affected them and their children. I want to know how they made a life for themselves in Lebanon for three years. I want to hear about their hopes and fears now that they are here in Canada. And I’m sure there is much that they would love to be able to say to me as well. Is it always this cold? When will our kids go to school? What do I do with these forms they gave me in Toronto? When will I be able to work? Are there people in this country who consider us to be a threat? Why?

These questions and answers will probably have to wait for a while. At least the full conversations that we would like to have will have to wait. We will keep trying, though. Of course. What else could we do?

But I am also finding that the difficult process of translation comes with gains as well as losses. At the most basic level, being in the same room as other human beings that cannot understand what I say and whose words I cannot understand forces me to be a bit more creative, to resort to nonverbal communication. Warmth and love and kindness must come through gestures and touch and facial expressions rather than words. Throwing a ball or sharing a candy with a child, for example.  Or looking at photos of our families on our phones.  There is much that can be said without words. Which is probably a good thing for wordy people like me to remember.

And beyond that, the inability to reliably communicate carries along with it the basic (and crucial!) reminder that there are people whose experience of the world looks and sounds and feels nothing like my own. To inhabit a different linguistic space than another person is a big thing, a massive divide to cross. But what are words but carriers of experiences and impressions and lives? Words always point beyond themselves to the human beings who speak them, the human beings whose perceptions of reality have been shaped in contexts that are in many ways unlike my own. My own way of apprehending and communicating the world is not the only one or the default one. Imagine that. It’s probably good and necessary to bump up against this reality from time to time.

To struggle with translation is not just about making sense of sounds or characters on a page or a screen. It is about creating space in our brains and in our lives for that which is “other.” It is to be open, always, to the bare truth that my way of understanding and expressing the world is not the only one.  And it is to be open to having my own perceptions and understandings and ways of expressing the world expanded or nuanced or changed by being in contact with another’s.  This is no small thing.  Indeed, the world could probably use a lot more of this.  I could, at any rate.

I am looking forward to the day when our new Syrian friends can speak English and we can have long, leisurely conversations. But until then, I want to not only pay attention to what might be lost in translation, but to the equally important things that might be found.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jenny Toews #

    Thanks for sharing, Ryan. Sounds familiar! Our Syrian family arrived on Dec 7 with zero English. 5 weeks later now and communication has improved so much through creative efforts and a few ESL classes. I find with Google translate you have to really simplify your sentences. (no contractions or idioms, limited auxiliary/modal/helping verbs, etc . Eg. “you drive?” Instead of “do you drive?”). We also use English-Arabic photo dictionaries and all kinds of interesting and awkward gestures. Lol. I look forward to hearing more of your experience. I felt the same way regarding the language barrier, which is why I’m studying basics of the language… very basics. 😉 Best wishes.

    January 11, 2016
    • So glad to hear that you’ve welcomed a family too, Jenny! And glad to hear that my/our experiences are similar to others. 🙂

      All the best as you continue the work of translating words and lives to one another.

      January 11, 2016
  2. howard wideman #

    Mary says soccer balls speak a universal languageSent from Yahoo Ma

    January 11, 2016
  3. Helene #

    Trying to communicate with our Syrian friends reminds me about our first days in Cambodia 25 years ago, when we did not know any Khmer. There was no Google translation app at that time. Somewhat there are ways to be friends without words.

    January 11, 2016
    • Yes, there certainly are!

      January 11, 2016
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Though my experiences with two refugee families sponsored through our church last year were peripheral, I have married into a Muslim family. ( 3 wonderful years and counting.😃)

    It has been my observation that, in general, the men seem to have more difficulty assimilating. Very proud and patriarchal customs can make it difficult for some Muslim men to adapt. Gainful employment is a big issue, particularly for the well educated.

    Socially there is much to admire, very family oriented and openly affectionate. Lots of good food, music and laughter…and no alcohol. Believe it or not you actually can party without it,… though I have to admit the segragation of men and woman, particularly at dinner time, is discouraging to me.

    No political or religious question seems taboo. At least insofar as it concerns the questions asked by my step children’s uncles and older male, friends and colleagues. They are very direct….the very first question I remember being asked was if I had any idea as to the number of woman and children American forces had murdered in their wars on Arab people’s?

    The men I am getting to know are all Egyptian immigrants, not refugees but assuming they are generally reflective of the Arab male I would describe them as masculine, proud, hard working, sober, very serious about education, chastity and advancement for their children and generally suspicious of western culture….I suspicion I share, to be frank…

    It is my understanding, as a person of God, that I have great accountability and purpose towards my Muslim family. It is my responsibility to reflect the love of Christ in my encounters with them. To BE joyful, merciful, peaceful, helpful….to do as Christ did and extend word and law into relationship. Make love tangible.

    It is also for me to learn from my Muslim friends that making love tangible, requires effort, sacrifice, seriousness, sobriety and above all, a daily and committed prayer life.

    We have gifts to share with each other.

    One group not better than the other. Both groups working together, recognizing what is common in their understanding of their faiths and their humanity.

    January 15, 2016

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