LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE, GET A NEW SOUL: Thoughts on Words and their Strangeness



The Icelandic word “Söknuður” is a noun and I find it hard to translate to English. In the “ordabok.is” it’s translated as “regret; nostalgia” and that fits somewhat - and yet not at all because in my mind the word “Söknuður” doesn’t have as much to do with the past as Nostalgia does and it doesn’t connote the idea of having done something you wish you hadn’t at all. This song actually titled “Söknuður” might be the best way to explain the word and I’m pretty sure that even though you don’t understand the text you’ll get it, somewhat at least. Söknuður can be very current and it can be for a thing you’ve never actually had. The best way to describe it in English is “I miss you/it/him/her/that”, but as far as I know you can’t produce a Noun out of “miss” and so it’s not quite as useable, hence the fact that I try to find a proper substitute for the Icelandic word on a regular basis, often without succeeding. Nostalgia is a great word, it connotes a lot of what Söknuður does, but it’s too selective, too narrow and so if I were trying to find an Icelandic word for Nostalgia I’d have issues with using “Söknuður” and possibly write something about how you can’t quite find the right word for the word Nostalgia. It’s a word very set on the past, whereas the Icelandic word is open to any form of “miss” you might have for people, places, ideas, things, time anything your heart desire (or desired) actually. It keeps within it the idea of Nostalgia but expands it.

It’s got a Swedish equivalent in “Saknad” which is nearly the same word, used in much the same way and translated with “want, absence, lack, loss, regret, baggravation(?!)” on Tyda.se, notably Nostalgia isn’t on that list.

When I write I try to focus on having English the main language in my mind. Most things I read are in English, I listen to audiobooks in English, the music I listen to while writing is in English (95% of the time, sorry Rammstein and DIMMA). I try the best I can not to let my mind drift into these specialist Icelandic/Swedish words and phrases that have an equivalence in English but when you try to use that word in English you soon realise (or maybe only when people tell you) that the meaning sounds “translated”.

Isn’t that a funny concept? You can read a whole book and actively look past the feeling that “it’s obviously translated”. What is it that makes language feel translated?

Well of course that’s obvious, the thoughts relayed to the new language are all produced in a foreign tongue, thought of a foreign mind (this is true, I’m sure, in simple socialisation between two people who DO speak the same language but aren’t very familiar with one another). This isn’t an obstacle for understanding but a new language teaches you new ways to express yourself, not only with new syllables and way to pronounce them, but subtly actually with new ways to think. So when you’re reading a language that’s far away not just geographically but also on the language family sphere you get the feeling that there’s something odd about the text. It’s a bit peculiar, it uses words you’re not quite used to using, maybe in a way you’re not quite used to using them and even uses common regular phrases in a way that you wouldn’t have had you been thinking in the translated language in the first place and not translated the thought from another language.

So it’s important to me to keep English in my head when I write. Hoping, against hope maybe, that I am able to produce the text in English and not somehow subconsciously translate the text from either Swedish or Icelandic and sound like I’ve been translated.

“Rust-brown foxes are so wondrously similar to stones that it’s marvellous.” is the first line in the Icelandic book SKUGGA-BALDUR by Sjón (quickly translated by myself). Had you written this line in English, had you chosen those words to convey the meaning? If you’d translated the words had you ended up with this sentence? Or had you gone into it again and further assimilated it, Borg style, to English? There is nothing in the wording that is foreign but it still sounds a little strange. And yet while translating this I chose not to use the word “vixen” which would be the correct translation of the Icelandic word used. In retrospect one might go back and change that, but would the meaning “Rust-brown vixens are so wondrously similar to stones that it’s marvellous,” have made you think of the animal, or would your mind have gone elsewhere? I’m not sure, but it would have taken me a long time to get this sentence straight had I been the one to translate it properly. It’s a beautiful sentence in Icelandic and not the least bit awkward.

Language is a wonderful thing. So many words have these slight connotations that the equivalent word in another language just doesn’t have and then there are the words we love to list on the internet that just don’t exist in other languages. Lists like these. How can we not all have a word like “IKTSUARPOK”? And how can English not have the word “Hundlappadrífa”? It’s a word for the big snowflakes that slowly float down in a calm weather. Literally translated it would be “Dogpawsdrift” which obviously makes no sense to those unfamiliar with it but it’s a beautiful thing.

So while I strive for not sounding like I’ve been “translated” I still often find the urge to use phrases and words that I find especially luring in Icelandic or Swedish and “translate” them over to English, knowing very well that native English speakers will raise their eyebrows and often there’s a risk that the idea will fall flat. This is especially painful with idioms and sayings. They don’t translate well and as their original meaning is often obscure even in the original language translating this is usually just idiotic. If I used any of these in my writing, would you get my meaning? Hardly unless you’d read the list and committed it to memory. In my daily life I use some, forcing my Swedish family to adopt the ideas - like playing chess with the pope, that’s a necessity. I also use “I’m not selling it more expensively than I bought it,” from time to time, meaning that what I’m saying is probably gossip or from an unreliable source - seems to fit today with all the things you read on the internet that may or may not be true or “fake news”.

I like pushing the limits and the only way I know how to push the limits of English is to push it towards what I do know. It’s something I’ve done in poetry and try my best to refrain from doing in prose, because it usually becomes awkward and strange. I don’t want people to read it and feel like it’s been “translated” or worse, feel like it’s stupid and hard to understand, but poetry is meant to push those boundaries and I feel it’s acceptable to sound foreign and strange in a poem, at least if the thought is “successful” which often it might not be.

This awkwardness becomes so apparent in things like EUROVISION where you have a lot of artists from around EUROPE (which Israel and now Australia belong to obviously) expressing themselves in various ways. This foreign awkwardness and “what the hell is this?” feeling is a part of what makes EUROVISION so much fun to watch. You watch and you judge based on the culture you know, completely ignoring the fact that you know very little about the culture this particular artist came from. Judging is easy. Seeing the magic in the difference can be hard. But that’s what we have translations for and where translation falter we need to reach out with our minds and try to understand that “Pana Po’o” is something you do too, even though you don’t have a word for it. It’s easy to forget that while translations are a way to make you understand the words of those who speak “in tongue”, sometimes by exchanging one thought for another, that the subtly of language is amazing and if you ignore the small things, like the fact that “Söknuður” is a word simple enough to understand it’s still very hard to translate and that reaching beyond your specific vocabulary might teach you new things, or just introduce you to a new way of expressing something familiar, like “moon street” (mångata) which is a Swedish word for the glimmering path of light the moon makes on water surfaces at night.

It’s easy to forget that new words teach us new things or like Alan W. Watt’s said: “It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us have no description.” This thing you find strange, odd and peculiar with foreigners is the thing you should be embracing, it will teach you new things. The title, "LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE, GET A NEW SOUL" is a Czech proverb and it rings very true to me, you don't just change with the experience of learning a new language (however you do it), you also gain something within yourself, a new way to think.

It’s not strange, bad, stupid or silly just because it seems foreign to you. If you look closer the strangeness might be just the new thought lurking, introducing itself to you. It’s a wonderful thing.

#writing #languages #poetry #words

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