I found out one day that I could read Greek. It was a nice surprise, much like learning that I could inexplicably cook amazing prime rib. I was in a diner at the time, as I frequently am here in New Jersey, when my new powers took hold.
My partner and I were waiting for our hummus when my eyes fell on the paper placemat beneath my silverware. I had looked at it countless times. There were ads for market research, for law firms, for an innovative way to haul elderly people up staircases they could no longer climb.
Then something in the upper corner caught my eye.
I have been to several countries: Greece, Italy, Turkey, France, Germany, and Japan. As a child, I learned Japanese. As a teenager, I learned Latin. As a human being in western civilization, I learned (some) Greek. Linguistically, my bases were well-covered, which enabled me to later try Sanskrit, Gaelic, Polish, Danish, medieval French, and more. Danish was breathtakingly easy.
Gimo Mendes fra Mozamibique er politisk, poetisk, personlig og frem for alt pluralistisk. What does this Danish mean? I think you have an idea. You just read Danish – congratulations.
We always think it is so hard to read, to hear, to speak another language, but they’re not the same operation. There is not one mental bucket called ‘French’ with an arrow next to it that says ‘can’t do’. There are many discrete tasks, incremental victories, and dubious degrees of accuracy. Personally, I can often read other languages. I can guess at meanings based on a few words, the context, and a little personal magic. I have done this for completely made-up languages, and I am not alone. When a sentence of gibberish has a familiar grammar, the rest falls into place.
“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Reading is easy. It’s how I learned every language except English. Speaking is harder. Before, you disassembled something. Now, you must assemble it. You can get by with stock phrases and a limited vocabulary, of course. And I do. I know how to say thank you in French, German, Latin, Japanese, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and probably others I cannot even remember. It’s enough.
The hardest is to hear. When someone else addresses you in this tongue, at an unknown pace, enjambing words together, using synonyms you don’t know, being formal or informal in a way you did not learn.. too often I have stared blankly. It’s a different skill, a different muscle. If they had only written the phrase down, I would have known it. Because I can read.
Did I say reading was easy? That if only a foreign speaker wrote a phrase down, I’d know it?
It’s only easy in Latin languages. In Greek, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, and a few others, it is a complete disaster.
Because they have their own alphabets, a double translation must take place. To read, I must translate the word into its sound, then its sound into its meaning. In Latin, the word is its sound to my brain.
S-o-u-n-d is sound. That funny looking squiggle is an S. The circle is an O. It sounds like ss and ow and..
But what’s 東京?
And what’s Nεκρός?
東京 is Tokyo. In Japanese, they have not one but three written languages. Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
Well, I can read romaji. But romaji is not listed, you say? That’s right. It’s not. Romaji is not a written language in Japan – but it does convey Japanese. How? It expresses the sounds of hiragana using the Roman alphabet.
Tokyo is Romaji. とうきょう is its hiragana. (Above, I used its kanji, because Tokyo is always written that way. Yes, that’s a wrench in the works.)
と う きょ う – to. u. kyo. yo. u. Highlighted above.
You can see the う – u – in there twice. That wasn’t so bad, was it? と う きょ う is Tokyo! Ah, but what does Toukyou mean?
Tokyo means nothing. It’s a place. But neko means something. Shiro means something. Or does it? I recently finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It is a Japanese novel translated into English. There are several characters with nicknames like colors. Shiro means white… and she’s also a teenager.
I’ve thought about trying to translate a Murakami book into English on my own. It would be a laborious work for the reasons described: I would need to translate its hiragana, katakana, and kanji mixture into sounds I understand, then translate those into English. Some words would need no translation. I know ao is blue. I know aka is red. I know neko is cat. But there are thousands of words I do not know. In a 100,000 word novel, I might have to do 25,000 lookups.
And what would I have at the end of this process? A mess? An incomplete hack? No. It would be something beautiful and rare; my own completely unique understanding of a book based on my own imperfect translation. The words would have nuances peculiar to me, based on my understanding of English. I might not glean the humor or the puns. I may completely miss a ‘not’ and believe the main character confessed when they did not. In Japanese, the words for probably and maybe are the same. Think about the implications.
I might misunderstand the book entirely. Certainly, I would not understand it as Murakami intended it.
And yet it would be completely mine. The book I translated – perhaps The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles – would have a shape in my mind unique to me. It would have a meaning that only I could give it. It would be an experience only I could have.
Now I ask you.. Is a book in English any different? We assume we have the same experience because we speak the same language, and yet that is a complete illusion. Our shared understanding of these sounds obfuscates the fact that our understanding of the concepts beneath them is broad at best. Our interpretation of every theme, scene, line, and word is nuanced in ways very particular to our feelings about the phrases, the sentiment, the paper, the typeface, and even the environment around us at that moment. Every book reading is unique. Every book meaning is misunderstood.
It’s just a matter of degree.
If you are a scientist, a mathematician, a sorority sister, or a fraternity brother, you know your Greek alphabet.
Nεκρός. Nu. Eta. Kappa. Rho. Omega. Sigma. Even if you did not know the letters, you might see N. E. K. ?. O. C. Let me help you.. that p is an R. That C is an s, a sigma, used to denote the end of the word. You might recognize it as the symbol for sum. This word is over; this is its sum.
Nεκρός. Nekro. Necro. Necrosis, Necromancy. Death.
The ad on that diner placemat was for a Greek funeral home. I understood it instantly, like magic. It was always magic, really; ordinary magic, evolutionary magic, only seen for its miraculous nature when it took me by surprise. I wasn’t trying to read Greek. I just did.