by Zinta Aistars
I consider the question, then waggle my hand this way and that. Así, así, I reply. Because, after all, it is only the middle of the work week, and I have a presentation to give immediately following this class, so that my mind keeps wandering to other tasks. So-so is all I can manage. But then, I reconsider and revise my reply: Bien, gracias. ¿Y usted?
I revise my reply, because today, for an hour, I am a student again. And I am learning a new language: Spanish. My colleague and student-in-arms, Rick, replies politely, Estoy bien. Gracias. But we are two delinquents sitting in the back row, sharing a workbook, chortling and teasing. Ah, school days. Only no one here can make me stay after class. Such are the privileges of schooling when there is gray in my hair and no mama at home waiting to sign my report card, scolding when she sees it.
No, no, really, I am not being mal. Well, not so very bad, anyway. I’m just amused that something juvenile seeps through me to be sitting in a class again, filling out blanks in workbooks, contemplating spit balls. I’ll be good, I promise. The truth is that I am thrilled to be here. Not only because it gets me out of the office for an hour twice a week, but because it is re-molding the stiffening clay of my brain to learn a new language. Learning, they say, and taking on new challenges that massage those brain cells is what keeps us young and alert. A brain is like any other muscle, requiring the occasional flex.
Not only that. I am a writer. Language is my tool. Language and I are lovers. I was born into an immigrant family, and Latvian was my first means of communication, the only language spoken in my childhood home. It is a logical and sensible language, the oldest, in fact, spoken yet today, dating back 2,000 years and some. Learn a sound, tack that sound to a letter, and it remains the same ever after. The beauty and logic of phonetics! Grammar brings along with it rules, but most of those rules hold steady and become a skeleton on which to build and add the flesh and muscle of true human connection.
Because language is that. It is a portal—from one world into another. Not merely a means of saying hello and asking directions and satisfying some pressing need, but a tunnel that leads deep into another culture. Translation may seem like a cheat sheet, but the only one being cheated is the person who relies upon it to gain understanding. Nothing can take the place of learning the words of another people.
Consider language a key, and a key the means to unlocking a door. Once you have that key in hand, the door can open to another room, a place you have never been before, a space with windows looking out upon the world from an angle you’ve never yet seen. Perhaps only a step or two, this way or the other from what you have seen before, but don’t ever underestimate a slight shifting in perspective. It can change everything.
Writing first in Latvian, only in my later adult years writing creatively in English, my second language, did I fully begin to understand this shift in perspective. I made frustrated attempts to translate my work from one language into the other. With poetry especially being such a precise vehicle of language, every word carrying not only meaning, but also an intrinsic rhythm, perhaps an alliterative echo, and level upon level of complex cultural connotation, I soon deemed the task impossible. And, truly, it is impossible. Translation is much like the child’s game of telephone. With each new translation, the original text and its meaning is subtly but forever transformed.
There were also those missing words. Keys without doors. In the Latvian language, for instance, I could not find an exact equivalent for the English (American) word for “fun” or “hobby.” While there were many Latvian words that spoke of joy, there is nothing quite so, well, frivolous as these very American concepts. And I began to realize how a language absorbs a culture, the entire history of a nation, its very sense of life and how to live it. The Americans are a nation who love to play, and hold few things in such esteem as their pleasures and their leisure. The Latvians, on the other hand, were a nation that had been oppressed by many a cruel master over the centuries. Our various venues of art are highly developed, for one has to find a way to express one’s spirit or it will burst from its own pulsing. But hobbies? What serf, enslaved to his baron, had time for hobbies? What comrade in the Soviet Union had leisure when you had to stand in line for five hours to buy a cheap cut of meat to feed the family?
Yet Latvian has words like smeldze, and I have yet to find its equivalent in English. This feeling that I struggle to describe to my American friends—a kind of humming deep inside my heart, a vibration of joy that makes the heart feel like it must swell and blossom. It is a kind of joy that goes far beyond the passing moment of pleasure and a bit of frivolous fun.
Language is a living thing, and so Latvian is quickly changing, as is English. As are all the living languages of the global community, now connected by the Internet and so often, regrettably, absorbing one another. Some of the idiosyncrasies of a particular nation and its very personal style of speech are smoothing out in such global communication, and it is somewhat sad, I think, that this is so. Yet much of expression survives. As long as we all live in our own little corner of the world, under the circumstances peculiar to that place—in terms of environment, government, economy, or whatever forms and reforms a people—our language will continue to mirror who we are at our innermost core.
Me llamo Sinta, I reply when asked my name. And even my name in another tongue sounds subtly different. I resist the spit ball that might hit the back of the head of an unwitting student in the front row, seeking to be teacher’s pet. I want to be here. I want to learn Spanish. I want yet another key to another door, leading to a new room where I have never yet been. So that I might look out upon the world and see it new, all over again.