Posted by: patenttranslator | December 2, 2017

Our Incomplete, Diluted and Fluid Linguistic and Cultural Identities

It was the multilingual monarch Charlemagne who supposedly said more than 12 centuries ago, or in the early Middle Ages, so different in their backwardness from our enlightened time, “to know two languages is to possess a second soul”.

There are proverbs in several languages that say very similar things. For example, a German proverb says “Je mehr Sprachen du kanst, desto mehr Mensch du bist” (the more languages you know, the more you are a human being), which happens to be an almost exact copy of a Czech proverb (Kolik jazyků znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem) and also of a Slovak proverb (Koľko jazykov vieš, toľkokrát si človekom.)

Having a multilingual identity, one for each language, is not quite the same thing as having several souls, or several lives. is it? Having several identities is incidentally also a psychiatric disorder called a multiple personality disorder (MPD).

Or was that what Charlemagne really meant? Unfortunately, there is no way to ask him, so we’ll never know.

I think that we can probably have at least two identities (maybe more when it comes to the languages we speak), without being seriously demented … or at least I hope so, because otherwise, I’m in big trouble.

I say that with the full knowledge that my own linguistic identity, (unlike my gender identification, for example, a common dilemma these days), is at this point so messed up that I would not even know how to measure or determine the different variables contained therein, or which way these variables point.

Up until the age of 27, I spoke Czech and thought in Czech almost exclusively every day of my life – except when I was trying to learn a foreign language at school. So that was clearly my linguistic and cultural identity back then.

But gradual dilution of my original language started when I became a refugee in Germany in the early 1980s, because at that point I started speaking and also sometimes thinking in German, a language that I had been studying for quite a few years prior to coming to Germany. To make things worse, at that point I felt inspired to also start speaking somewhat butchered Polish.

This was because most of my friends were Polish refugees who just like me were waiting for a visa to emigrate: to the United States, Canada or Australia, so I tried to speak their language with them because I knew they appreciated it, since they could then understand me better, despite my funny accent and the horrible mistakes I was making in that complicated language.

After that, I started speaking mostly English after emigrating to America at the age of 30. Except that this linguistic identity soon enough has also come under a ferocious, frontal attack by the Japanese language, ever since I married a Japanese woman 33 years ago.

I could have probably kept my English language identity intact and safely separate from all the other languages that I have been trying to learn for decades, with different degrees of success, including keeping it separate from Japanese, if my wife spoke to me only in Japanese, just like I have for the most part managed to keep my Czech identity separate from my American identity, at least as far as the linguistic aspects of these very different identities are concerned.

But the problem is, for the last 33 years, she has been insisting on speaking both languages indiscriminately and at the same time, often starting a sentence in one language and finishing it in another. “It’s all 中途半端” (chuto hanpa), as she might put it, by using two languages in one sentence, no doubt to keep me in deep, perpetual confusion.

The words “chuto hanpa” can be difficult to translate, depending on the context. One possible translation into English would be, “half way through”, although I like “incomplete” better, if only because it is much shorter.

Another blow to my linguistic integrity, which caused me major financial pain, as well as confusion, was that after I have been translating mostly Japanese patents to English for more than 20 years, the demand for translation of Japanese patents to English started decreasing considerably about seven years ago. There are probably several reasons for this phenomenon, I will deal with these in a separate blog post.

This phenomenon was obviously very unfortunate for somebody who was educated and trained to become a teacher and translator of Japanese, since after a few years, I was for the most part out of a job.

Fortunately, I was able to fall back on a few European languages that I can fake almost as well as Japanese, and in some cases better than Japanese, which eventually saved my translation business.

As far as I can tell, there is as much demand for translation of German patents to English, at least in the fields that I translate for my clients, as there was for translation of Japanese patents to English some 20 years ago when I was flying high as a translator in that particular language combination.

To me, the real moral of the story, which in this case happens to be the story of my life, is that whether or not one can have several souls, or be a human being several times over, or have several separate linguistic or cultural identities, is not really the question here except perhaps for graduate students in linguistics who might be able to write an interesting dissertation on this topic.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to have one’s original linguistic identity diluted, distorted and degraded after living in different countries where one does not get to use one’s original language at all!

It’s not a problem when your spouse is talking to you for decades “chuto hanpa” (in a funny mishmash of two languages at the same time)! Lots of people do that, and most of them are not crazy!

Nor do I care too much whether my efforts to learn several languages over so many years are a clear sign of a multiple personality disorder, or of some other serious psychiatric symptom pointing to dementia!

Things change so fast in this world that as a result of the “destructively creative effect of technology”, for example, we simply have to be ready to jump on a new bandwagon, professionally speaking, when, or preferably just before, the wheels fall out of the bandwagon that we were so successfully riding while the original vehicle was still in good working order.

This is true of every profession. And it so happens that when you are a translator, to know more than two languages, and the more the better, is like having an iron reserve of funds accessible in the bank just in case they become needed.


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