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A multitude of first languages being spoken in Canada, coupled with the need for a common language in the public setting, raises the probability of misunderstanding harmless expressions. The biblical Tower of Babel comes to mind.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
In my recent article ‘Our Money Tree’, I made the following statement:
One reader took exception to the highlighted segment above, as follows:
I had, of course, not meant any offence to home makers, so I apologized to the reader, and a healthy discussion ensued from there. But her reaction got me to rethink my choice of words. When I wrote ‘those not interested in working at all such as home makers’, I was actually translating from the idea that, in my head, was in Gujarati. Specifically, it was in one of the dialects of north Gujarat. In that version, the expression sounds like treating home makers with respect; the implied meaning is that working at a job is much less valuable than the functions that home makers perform. But when translated into English and read by a native speaker of English (as I assume Debra to be), it sounds demeaning.
This realization set me thinking about the many first languages that are spoken in Canada, and the need for anyone whose first language is not English or French to translate, in their minds, their thoughts before they express them vocally or in writing. Possibilities of mistranslating – or being misunderstood because the cultural context of the expression is absent – abound. It is a tribute to the flexibility of human nature that such instances do not become obstacles to conversation. But there is another angle here – what if the translation happens the other way around? That is, when something is said in English or French in an inoffensive manner, but the person hearing it understands it via translation into their first language that takes place in their mind?
WEAKNESS IN NUMBERS
Given the hypersensitivity of our political culture (which may not necessarily remain confined to politics), any such instance has the potential to acquire major proportions. I suppose one of the factors in deciding whether that happens or not is the relative stature / public visibility of the ‘offending’ person. With the constant drumming about how white Canadians are perennially the oppressors of BIPOC, attempts to clarify the ‘offending’ expression may not necessarily succeed. They may even be required to attend a course in ‘sensitivity’. In a sense, the significant numerical majority of white Canadians has put them in a position of weakness, rather than giving them the strength of numbers. The demands to be sensitive to other cultures is generally a good thing, but as the East African saying goes, ‘Anything in excess is poison’. Speaking of which, I am reminded of a similar experience in Kenya.
One of my colleagues in Kenya, Robinson, often had to sort out issues with the officialdom via under-the-table payments to officials. As the person managing the factory, he was seldom seen in the administrative building. One of the things that brought him to my office was to collect cash for a task involving such payment. Over time, I fell in the habit of remarking, upon seeing him in my office, that he had come to take some cash. Again, I was translating from Gujarati; it was a neutral statement in the context. I did not realize that Robinson was getting a very different meaning from my words.
One day, he couldn’t stand it anymore and told me clearly that he thought I was implying that he was taking a cut from the unaccounted payments. I was surprised by his (what I saw as) bluntness, but by a stroke of luck, my reflexive response was to apologize. I also clarified to him that I was using an expression from another language, so perhaps the misgiving was on account of that cultural difference. Now it was Robinson’s turn to be surprised; in the workplace hierarchy of Kenya at the time (maybe it’s different now), it wasn’t common for a South Asian to apologize so readily to a black African. He accepted my apology & explanation without any rancor remaining.
Over time, Robinson and I formed a productive team. People used to say openly that working together, the two of us could resolve any difficulty. The relationships that I formed with my co-workers in Kenya are among my most cherished memories, and my relationship with Robinson is among those at the very top.
THE ART OF CIRCUMVENTION
The point of the above discussion may not seem like a big deal, but if we are going to emphasize issues such as cultural sensitivity and mis-gendering people, I believe my experiences provide a useful guide whereby we can step around the potholes that arise during our communications so we can keep moving forward as a society and as individuals. Our focus should be on the road that takes us somewhere rather than on the potholes.