Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Our homelands all have their own unique variation of language. Whether it be an accent, regional dialect, different language, or even just words and phrases unique to our area, language and communication vary greatly throughout the world. On a much simpler level, my repertoire of words and sayings changes as I move back forth between Loyola and New Jersey. For example, my friends from home have no idea what it means when I say, “I’m going to the FAC” or “I hate Primo’s.” My friends from home are familiar with my Bridgewater, New Jersey lingo. When the two groups mix, we are of course speaking the same language, but I might have to interject and provide some explanations or clarifications to stories. As a result, there could be some sort of gap in communication that would result in a story losing some of its meaning, humor, power, or more. Since language is so tied to our homelands, as we move between homelands, we bring aspects of our language with us. I think this relates well to the fact that the word translation literally means, “to carry across.” We carry our words and phrases with us to new homes and eventually add to the language of that area.
As people travel and create new homelands, language is not the only entity that must be carried across or translated across cultures. Different groups of people have varying sets of values and beliefs, and these can be lost in translation as well. In Patricia Grace’s novel, Potiki, we see many instances where the developers misinterpret or fail to understand a Maori belief, and vice versa. The colonial and developing culture has come into contact with the traditional culture, but neither has been able to translate their set of values, or perhaps one side has not been willing to listen. These instances in the novel are some of the most striking and poignant; they serve to clearly demonstrate the differences between the two cultures.

Early in the novel, Roimata reveals the impact of the colonial British influence on her education: “At school we were given holy pictures and toffees to help us do God’s will...It was his will that we did not push or dribble, whistle, spit, swear, or make dog’s ears in books. But how did you make dog’s ears in books? Could there be dog’s ears without whole dogs?” (Grace 16). Roimata and her peers were taught a phrase that they could not at all comprehend, and simple expected to follow along accordingly.

Later on, when men come to develop the family land, there are many instances that where the gap in translation or understanding is quite clear. In particular, the dialogue between the Maori people and Dollarman reveal the differences in values:
“A million dollar view, so to speak, that...”
“Costs nothing.”
“...The dolphins come every second summer.”
“Maybe so, but not for everyone, and not close, when people can see...”
“Close enough to be believed”
“I mean this way the public would have constant access. Our animals could be viewed any time. There would be public performances...”
“Every second summer is public enough” (92)
This conversation fully captures the misunderstanding between the two groups of people. The Maori are attached to the land, and don’t understand why it needs to be “developed” in order to reach its full potential. The invading developers, and they are seen as invading, are attached to money, and therefore only find value in a piece of property when it is generating a profit. Their preoccupation with money leads them to deliberately destroy the land at the end of the novel, and says nothing positive about their culture’s set of values and beliefs.

Another striking moment of misunderstanding of a concept, or alternate understanding of a concept, occurs when the developers propose building a road in front of the houses and through the ancestral burial grounds. To compensate for building the roads, the “money men” assure the people that the houses “could be shifted nearer to town, to a more central place.” It would make sense to Europeans or Americans that a town would be the center of existence. Towns are where we go to get everything we need—food, money, education, and so on. To the Maori, however, this proposal was laughable: “Everybody had laughed then, because the man had not understood that the house was central already and could not be more central” (100). The family lives their life centered around the sea, so according to their lens and beliefs there house truly is centrally located.

These moments where beliefs or values are lost in translation teach us an important lesson. When dealing different cultures or groups of people, we cannot assume that the lenses with which we view the world are the same as the lenses with which they view their world. Beliefs, values, and perspectives vary greatly across different homelands. Perhaps we should all take a bit of Roimata’s advice and “let the boot be on the other foot for a change” (100).

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