Last Saturday morning I was sat on the back row of a tiny, Edinburgh-bound plane. On the other side of the cabin sat an older man and woman; her head perched on his shoulder as she slept; him sat attentively reading an English phrasebook. Essentials, such as ‘may I have a mixed salad please?’, were translated from (what I assume was) his native Italian. As Anglophones, the idea that we’d have to learn another language for a trip is hardly top of our priorities. Everyone speaks English, don’t they? Why am I even bothering with this bloody degree? What’s the point?
Good question, I suppose. I’ve spent seven years learning a language, only to be lost when speaking to children who’ve not been alive that long. I’ve learned a French that doesn’t prepare me for small-talk with a checkout assistant. Something has kept me interested, though. Something beyond the cringeworthy UCAS personal statement, yet something I can’t begin to explain.
In the classroom and in the country itself, I’ve been particularly captured by translation in everyday life. I’m no expert on the topic, but there seems to be a culture of… Frenchifying everything. (One beauty of language – making words up, just like I did there.) The most bizarre, seemingly irrelevant phrases are translated – from the slogans of multinational companies to the introducing credits for Anglophone films and series. If it’s not translated, it’ll be followed by an asterisk and a translation in the small print or subtitles. It seems frivolous to translate the name of McDonald’s most recent themed burger range… but why not, at the same time? There’s benefits and disadvantages to engaging with a Frenchified media – is there really any need for such purity in a global world? – but I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw another language so pertinent in Anglophone media and society. I genuinely don’t know what side I stand on.
As someone who rarely watches films – in any language – I’m not going to pretend, either that I’m an expert in this area. It does interest me, though, to watch a film while reading its subtitles, or listening to a dubbed film and how the meaning may have changed. If in an American series, for example, there’s a French character, their nationality will have changed – as if we’re not aware this show is meant to be set in California. Trainspotting 2 will be released in France (among other countries) dubbed into the respective languages. How can you convey the same meaning? What French town will replace Edinburgh; what accents will the actors have? How can you translate a non-standardised dialect into a standardised language – or will you replace it for a French dialect? French film La Haine uses a specific dialect and is based upon a specific context of inner city-Paris. While subtitled, rather than dubbed, how do you chose a dialect obviously non-standard yet accessible to all viewers? I’ll leave that one to the experts to answer. If you change a character’s nationality, then you change that character. If you change the language – something so fundamental to films like Trainspotting – you change the story itself. While I can’t testify in the same way, I’m sure it becomes equally intriguing for films based on fictional places and worlds. There’s a minefield in language, and one we’re so lucky to be able to explore.
Am I advocating monolingualism? Of course not. But the language we use is so intrinsic to our identities and expression. If anything, multiple languages offer you multiple ways to construct yourself; to be the architect of yourself. We never stop growing and changing, and neither does the language – that being verbal and non-verbal – that we use to convey that. Body language can express more than any words that ever leave our mouths.
How does this relate to being abroad, you ask, a good way through this piece and wondering where the funny anecdote is? Well, I suppose I can tell you that being abroad reminds me, again and again, that language is more than just a tool. When we communicate, we offer more than an exchange of information, but an insight to who we are. Maybe that’s why I like languages so much, then. They’re a map of who we are and where we come from.
[Amy Shimmin – @amylfc]