Wednesday, 11 November 2015

it's only words

When I was 6 years old, my grandparents got me a geography book. It had maps of all the continents and brief chapters explaining how's the word made, what are the geological characteristics of the different part of the planet, what's the position of Earth in the solar system and so on.

It had a page explaining the national characteristics are: well, "stereotypes people have about you because of the place you were born and you have about them for the same pathetic motives" was perhaps too long for the title of a chapter in a children book. It had flags of some random countries and listed things like food, climate, language spoken.

I remember I spent more than an afternoon trying to make sense of this “language spoken” detail. I couldn’t comprehend how was it possible for people to speak different languages. Did they have to learn it at a certain point? I then considered the case of my parents and other relatives: they were all bilingual, as they spoke Italian and dialect. The conclusion I came to, with a degree of intellectual acumen and raw geniality that would leave the likes of de Saussure, Jakobson and Derrida literally speachless, was: people might speak different languages, but they think in Italian and then their brain translates their thoughts from Italian to German or English or Bantu.

That would also explain the reason why wars broke out: too much misunderstandings were due to bad simoultaneous translation made by the brains. If everybody spoke Italian, that wouldn’t happen, reasoned the 6-year-old me.

My political vision is a bit more cynical nowadays, but this small story comes back to my mind quite often: I can almost pinpoint the starting point of an obsession that accompanied me for most of my life, I can see in this explanation I made up for myself the beginning of my interest with words and translation, the curse and blessing that is Babel.

At University, while studying Benjamin & Steiner (which are not an indie-rock band, even though somebody should name his band so) and tried to make sense of their works, I also found another love of mine: untranslatable words. There are so many words that don’t have a full correspettive in another language, because of the many different cultural, historical, geopolitical factor that shapes a language and that can be defined only by the language they influence.

About an year ago, I was wasting time on internet. It happens often: I open Safari with an objective in mind, a website to visit but then things derail. Aside the attention span of an hamster the temptation of wikipedia, rather than online magazine and similar sites is too strong for me to resist.

And that’s when I found the definition of a word, heartworm:

n. a relationship or friendship that you can’t get out of your head, which you thought had faded long ago but is still somehow alive and unfinished, like an abandoned campsite whose smoldering embers still have the power to start a forest fire.

I never heard it before, and when I read it I wonder why. It’s so nice, so poetic, so… invented.

I had stumbled by pure chance on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow: it’s a collection of invented words. The author, John Koenig, creates neologisms, he gives a definition and name to an emotion that we might know how it feels but we don’t have a word for it… yet.

I’ve been reading the words slowly, one or two a week, sometimes I alternate them with untranslatable words. Alternating English and Italian every single day sometimes makes me forget the words: I have an image, a thought, a feeling in my head and I know that I know the word that defines it. But I can’t find it; sometimes I forget the Italian translation of an English word and I have to check on the dictionary for it. When I’m tired, my speech become even more garbled, as words from other languages I studied are thrown in the mix. I've always struggled to find the right words to voice my idea, I normally choke midway through, nervousness and anxiety having the best of me; the way languages are getting more and more mixed over the years makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate them again. And I worry if, with time, I’ll become less and less comprehensible to other people.

Funnily enough, at the same time, all these languages piled up, in combination with neologisms and untranslatable words, make my ideas more clearer to me as I can patch up all the spots where one language is not complete with something borrowed from another one.

And if you ever had to learn a word from the dictionary of obscure sorrow, and you’re a bit like me, I think you should start with “fitzcarraldo”.

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