Reading from Eva Hoffman’s excellent book “Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language”, I came across this passage and had to share it:
"When my friend Penny tells me that she’s envious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn’t work. I don’t know how Penny feels when she talks about envy. The word hangs in a Platonic stratosphere, a vague prototype of all envy, so large, so all-encompassing that it might crush me - as might disappointment or happiness.
I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyway, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, this radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances - its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.
The worst losses come at night. As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house - my mother is a sort of housekeeper here, to the aging Jewish man who has taken us in in return for her services - I wait for that spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my nighttime talk with myself, my way of informing the ego where the id had been. Nothing comes. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don’t apply to my new experiences; they’re not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. This interval before sleep used to be the time when my mind became both receptive and alert, when images and words rose up to consciousness, reiterating what had happened during the day, adding the day’s experiences to those already stored there, spinning out the thread of my personal story.
Now, this picture-and-word show is gone; the thread has been snapped. I have no interior language, and without it, interior images - those images through which we assimilate the external world, through which we take it in, love it, make it our own - become blurred too. My mother and I met a Canadian family who live down the block today. They were working in their garden and engaged us in a conversation of the the “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” variety, which culminated in their inviting us into their house. They sat stiffly on their couch, smiled in the long pauses between the conversation, and seemed at a loss for what to ask. Now my mind gropes for some description of them, but nothing fits. They’re a different species from anyone I’ve met in Poland, and Polish words slip off of them without sticking. English words don’t hook on to anything. I try, deliberately, to come up with a few. Are these people pleasant or dull? Kindly or silly? The words float in an uncertain space. They come up from a part of my brain in which labels may be manufactured but which has no connection to my instincts, quick reactions, knowledge. Even the simplest adjectives sow confusion in my mind; English kindliness has a whole system of morality behind it, a system that makes “kindness” an entirely positive virtue. Polish kindness has the tiniest element of irony. Besides, I’m beginning to feel the tug of prohibition, in English, against uncharitable words. In Polish, you can call someone an idiot without particularly harsh feelings and with the zest of a strong judgment. Yes, in Polish these people might tend toward “silly” and “dull” - but I force myself toward “kindly” and “pleasant.” The cultural unconscious is beginning to exercise its subliminal influence.
The verbal blur covers these people’s faces, their gestures with a sort of fog. I can’t translate them into my mind’s eye. The small event, instead of being added to the mosaic of consciousness and memory, falls through some black hole, and I fall with it. What has happened to me in this new world? I don’t know. I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me. I’m not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist."