We want to be in charge of our speech. Those of us who work with words for a living — we want to control the message, the input and output of words, dancing themselves out in lines that kickstep from left to right, even when spoken. The lexography of the Roman alphabet. Caesar writing “veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). The triumphant abc’s! We hold our Anglo-European words close, before spraying them out into the world like Caesar. I arrive, I see, I language. TA da!
But when we are foreigners we can’t be so certain. Especially when we are in a place where we can’t even read the signs, we are functionally illiterate and mum. Mute except for the gargling that is our germano-latinate mother tongue and that no one on the street understands. It’s so harsh and ugly! Ouch!
Enter the translator who becomes a kind of savior — who brings the word and it does indeed become flesh. Our gargling turns into Song. Oh! People nod. That’s what she means. That’s what the funny man who is her companion is trying to say. Aha.
Thus we tumble into rapturous affection for those who can speak for us. We fall in love with Julia whose name is Min and the way she makes our words fling themselves into Mandarin to writers and students and a particularly friendly lady who is cleaning the street. People laugh at her/our jokes. She becomes family — or better, she becomes another self. Then comes Dee whose real name is Din and Jacob whose Chinese name we never learn. Din translates my advice to professors, and then asks questions in English that help me tweak, correct, and improve my advice. Jacob calls me writer hammer and then just hammer. My classmates at the Whidbey island MFA called me that, because there were so many Stephanie’s. Jacob helps me up and down the stairs to the shrine to Kuan Yin. He orderes perfect meals in out of the way restaurants and we toast each other with strong mulberry wine.
You are tall, writer hammer, he tells me.
In these translations I find myself. At the end of the trip I recognize the Chinese for hammer-teacher and know myself anew.
We are heartbroken when we say good bye to the beautiful translators. Who will now tell us to others? Who will explain our nonsense? Make sense of our fractured words? Whose gaze will bestow upon us a sense of being other, of being foreign and brilliantly and beautifully strange? Where we are going we are all too familiar. We lose ourselves in the wasteland of our origin. How sad!
We try to forget that we were once fascinating visitors, but when we remember we find ourselves bereft. We think of the translators often and wish we could meet again in that place that is not and therefore became a strange and luminescent mirror image of home.