In Greek we have two different words for “I love you” and “I am in love with you.” It would be incredibly difficult for me to clarify what the difference between them is; but it would certainly feel wrong to just surrender to the direct translation, which is roughly the same. At the times that one of the two slipped out of my mouth in English, I tried to explain it but failed miserably. That would frustrate me; something would always be missing. Indie British band alt-J put my confusion into words in their song 3WW: “I just want to love you in my own language.”
Experiencing this desperate and somehow hopeless longing to convey meaning through words in the context of love, I realized that it was just an instance of a more general frustration I had not been able to pinpoint before. Expressing my translated feelings in English no longer really came with the sort of satisfaction that being understood had brought me before. Whatever understanding there was was always accompanied by a feeling of loss. It seemed to me that my self-perceived genuine self could never make it through that wall of Latin characters at the tip of my tongue.
Even though at the times I longed for communication this barrier of expression was disheartening, the truth is that this was not always the case. My Greek friends pointed out to me how often, when I was talking about emotionally charged subjects, I would switch to English. Then I started noticing myself. Although not without exceptions, I would find myself hiding behind English, particularly when I did not want to experience the meaning of the words I was using, either because I deemed the time inappropriate or simply because I did not want to.
Lately I have come to believe that in being frustrated at my lack of “authentic” expression I was merely dissociating from its meaning. The dishonesty of my frustration lay in the idea that the version of myself that is able to express itself in Greek is somehow more genuine to that speaking in any other language. Except for lack of flexibility in navigating the world outside the self-fulfilling prophecy of a script written only in one language, my despair was merely in denial of the reality of a life “written” in many different languages.
I think the use of different languages as I have experienced it simply brings an even more important issue to the surface; an attitude towards language as a constraining rather than a liberating system. The cause of my frustration is not that the English language could not exactly capture what αγάπη or έρωτας mean to me in Greek, but rather that I don’t really allow it to express anything else. As such I have constrained these words, that are not even technically the same, to a preconceived idea, which they could never possibly fulfill.
Even if one could map meaning like that, appealing to singular definitions of terms, it would only be relevant if people were processing it the way computers run their code. For better or for worse in many parts of our lives, such as in obeying the law or participating in the economy, we are expected to run a code. But even there people transgress, find themselves in unforeseen situations, and the code glitches. Holding ourselves to such or even a higher standard for more personal parts of our lives seems unrealistic. Also probably quite boring, I might add.
Then why do we behave like our experiences and words could or should conform to some very clearly defined idea? I don’t think I’ve ever said “I love you” the same way twice. In Greek or in English. Perhaps nobody will ever completely understand it the way I mean it either. I would not know. So what is the point in despairing when one feels less familiar or complete than the other?
I believe we will always be a bit “lost in translation.” But for every part of meaning we miss, there is another we find. The hope of being completely understood might make one feel less alone. Yet, in my experience, it’s quite overrated; I’d rather always discover and be discovered than ever be found.
Viktor Dimas | firstname.lastname@example.org .