Language and Translation

CBC Radio had a series, Babel “Lost and Found in Translation”. On Episode 3 they discussed words that cannot be (easily) translated into English; the one I heard on the radio recently was a Portuguese word for the mark left by a glass on a table. We can think of others. And the reverse game of words can be played as we think of multiple expressions for the same experience. But when trying to express oneself in a second language, the struggle is often finding the word – any word – to communicate what you are trying to say. And what is lost in translation? As I prepare to present in French at Laval University tomorrow, I am reminded that language skills and vocabulary quickly depreciate without use! But I am also reminded how much I aspire to communicate well in French. 

The journée d’étude hosted by Professor Francine Saillant is on slave labour: “Travail esclave: Mémoires, luttes sociales et réalités contemporaines”. Professor Saillant and her colleagues at CELAT, an interdisciplinary and inter-university research centre on history and culture, are working on contemporary and historical forms of enslavement.

The nuances of language are not lost on the organizers of the workshop as papers are exploring the power of slavery as metaphor, the politics of trafficking and slavery, and the importance of memories of slavery to the construction of national identity.

I recall discussions at a meeting in Burkina Faso as activists were writing the Ouagadougou Declaration on early and forced marriage in West Africa. The document was not written in one language and translated into another; rather the francophones and anglophones were discussing language together. The French term for “early marriage” is “mariage précoce” and the francophone participants were not interested in using “child marriage”/ “mariage des enfants”. Précoce can also be translated, however, into precocious which was not the intended meaning. 

Wish me luck (in French)!

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