14 october 2010
eva hoffman is a polish jew. she emigrated after the war age 14 with her parents who somehow managed to avoid what the nazis called “the final solution” to “the jewish problem.”
in her autobiography lost in translation: life in a new language (1989) hoffman laments the fact that some of the new english words she learned as a teenager in canada just do not have the same depth of meaning as the polish equivalents with which she had grown up.
a whole range of ideas and feelings associated with a specific word are lost when the emigrant moves to a new country and learns a new language.
english speakers have been known to boast that their language is superior simply because there are so many english words — but there are also advantages to being a native speaker of a language with far fewer words, where the same word can be used to include many meanings. less is more.
hoffman remarks on how the new, english words
just don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. ‘river’ in polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. ‘river’ in english is cold — a word without an aura. it has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. it does not evoke. p.106
my own life story includes a similar narrative arc : i was born and raised in the netherlands and dutch is my mother tongue. at the age of 14 i too emigrated with my parents and had to learn the english language.
and it occurred to me last summer, as i was driving through a place called echt in the south of the netherlands, that whilst english is much more useful in the world at large than dutch and for this i am still grateful, for me too there is also a sense of loss and there are specific english words that just do not carry as much meaning as the dutch equivalents i grew up with
and i realised then that one of those words is ‘echt’.
this simple four letter word contains a number of meanings including real, actual, true, genuine, authentic and it is also often used with a question mark to ascertain if the speaker is being truthful — but as such it is far less frequently employed in a frivolous way as an adjective than in english.
but for me there is no english words which in itself is able to indicate the undeniable presence of actuality contained in the word echt.
of course being a child who was often the butt of his father’s voordegekhouderij (nonsense talk and practical jokes) it was also a word with special significance.
the dutch language escaped the assault on the idea of the real by the coca cola company when it launched the slogan It’s the Real Thing to promote its product in 1969, a theme it continued less successfully in 1974 with Look for the Real Things and as recently as 2005, with a hint of desperation one feels, with Make it Real.
but they never bothered to translate It’s the Real Thing into dutch. it was marketed very successfully with its english slogan and may never have sold as well if they had tried to convince dutch consumers of the authentic truth their product by using the word echt.
similarly, virtual reality in dutch is not translated. dutch speakers just refer to it as virtual reality, allowing the pure meaning associated with the word echt to be preserved.
another example of such a word is much closer to its english equivalent being only slightly different in pronunciation as well as spelling : ‘stil’
stil = still, silent, quiet
but even with these slight differences the english word does not carry anywhere as much meaning as the complete and utter silence i associate with the word stil
of course being a noisy, fidgety child the word was frequently used in my presence — usually in the form of why can’t you be… and it is a state to which i truly aspired.
also in dutch the word does not include the meaning of something which is continuing as in it is still going on. for this we have a different word, meaning the dutch word stil is only ever used in the context of stillness.
another thing i miss about the way the dutch language creates meaning is that in its written form you can place particular emphasis on a word by putting an acute accent on a vowel to emphasize it — so you can are able to add an extra dimension of meaning to the word écht.
which this brings me to a zine called echt, which i am currently working on and which is coming perilously close to the realm of an artist book — but since i am no longer an artist and i am not and have never been a writer nor do i have ambitions to be one….
need something here