It happened late one night at the start of my freshman year. I was crossing the street by Atticus, ambling to some party I no longer remember, when suddenly, words failed me.
My once exuberant steps slowed, and my ringing voice trailed off, and I was suddenly unable to finish the story I had been so caught up in moments before.
I stared silently at my closest friends, dumbfounded, mouth opening and closing wordlessly. I could not, for the life of me, think of the English words for what I wanted to say.
Admittedly, I most probably had had a little too much to drink that night, but that moment stands out in my memories as the first time my thoughts were lost in translation. It was the first time I couldn’t rely on something I had always taken for granted.
I don’t think I realized just how much I leaned on the shared linguistic culture of people back home until arriving at Yale. To be able to break into my specific genre of broken up Chinglish was a luxury that I never knew was mine until I stepped through the hallowed brick archway of Phelps Gate last year.
How was I to know that my random ramblings in their comfortable jumble of Cantonese, Mandarin and English were something uniquely comprehensible to the people from my home? How was I to know that seamlessly switching into Chinese mid-sentence was a privilege and not a given in my day-to-day conversations?
I have somehow found myself increasingly at a loss. When the swelling tide of my words gets drowned out by my sudden inability to translate, I break abruptly into silence mid-sentence, unable to bring the words I want to the tip of my tongue.
Sometimes, the words that fail me are simple: lampshade, whiteboard, laundry detergent. Sometimes, they’re more complicated, the emotionally laden idioms of my native tongue: a beauty that is so intense that the fish stop swimming and the birds drop out of the sky; two fish out of water who kiss each other to survive and are thus inextricably connected for life, even when the wave washes them back into the ocean and they go their separate ways.
I try to explain, mixing disjointed words with pathetic mime in an amusing display of charades, one that those around me have grown accustomed to. Through this strange collage my friends and I do in order to convey our thoughts, I have not only begun to realize that certain sentiments cannot be translated into English, but also that the English language itself lacks the intensely emotional vocabulary of the mother tongues my friends and I were born with.
I’ve found that some of the thoughts that whirl around in my brain simply cannot be taken out of their cultural context. The Chinese idioms and phrases that I have grown up around are lost in this sea of translation and tint the lens through which I view the world around me.
Certain things I’ve always known — my Cantonese mother never says “I love you” to me in Chinese because that genuinely is not something people say. Instead, she uses the highly descriptive vocabulary that makes up the Chinese language to explain her feelings — metaphors that take sentences to explain in English, but can be conveyed in four short sounds in Chinese: ‘Ke gu ming xin,’ a feeling so intense and deep that it imprints itself onto your bones and buries itself in your heart, typically used to describe an extreme and passionate love.
As obvious as it sounds, what I’ve learned from being at Yale is that certain sentiments and ways of thinking are attributes of the languages you’re raised in. Some of the emotions I feel and my subsequent understanding of the world are indescribable to even my closest friends, for we lack the shared background that would warrant common comprehension.
But perhaps we’re better off this way. The disjointed ramblings of translated Swahili or Greek or Spanish that I’m surrounded by have woven together to form the vibrant tapestry that has become my Yale experience.
While the lapses in my brain functions when I’m trying to convey a thought are annoying, I’ve decided that my attempts to perfectly articulate my feelings in English are sometimes nonsensical. Instead, to the amusement, or perhaps annoyance of my friends, I’ve adopted an almost incoherent method of directly translating the Chinese in my brain.
Why tell my friend who’s sweating from stress to relax and breathe when I can echo the words my mother and grandmother always chided me with: if you calm your heart, you will naturally be cool.
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org