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Bearing Across

March 2, 2013

The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’.  Some days it feels more like ‘bearing a cross’.

Don’t get me wrong.  I thrive on my role as an English-language teacher.  But it has illuminated a number of difficulties that had never previously occurred to me.  At first blush, the task at hand seemed straightforward:  one just had to translate the words.  But it is not that simple.  In fact, it is downright demanding at times.

To start with, English is a sprawling, messy, and confusing language, comprised of somewhere between 250,000 and 2,500,000 words depending on what one considers a distinct word.  Are the noun run and the verb run two words or simply two forms of the same word?  Are run and runs separate words?  Do proper nouns belong in the list?  Does one include the many words borrowed from other languages, such as spaghetti, chutzpah, rapprochement, karaoke and kwashiorkor (the protein malnutrition that I often see here)?   Should medical and technical terms be included?

In practice though, the average high school graduate knows only about 10,000 words.  A university graduate may well know twice that number, but will likely only use 2,000 words in day-to-day speech.  The King James Bible uses 14,565 words, but nearly half of those appear only once.  There are 31,354 words in the collected works of Shakespeare, but again, almost half those words he used only once.

In addition, language is dynamic.  About 20,000 new words are added to English lexicon every year, while others fade from use.  The meaning of some words undergoes evolution: cool no longer necessarily means moderately cold, and in the vernacular of the younger generation bad has come to mean excellent.

English stands as the dominant language in the world, with over 400 million people speaking it as their mother tongue in 125 dialects.  More than 700 million others speak it as a foreign language.  Three quarters of the world’s written communication and 80% of all information stored on computers is in English.   It is the dominant language of the Internet and the working language of business.  Small wonder Haitians want to learn to speak it.

On the other hand, Haitian Creole is a relatively simple language spoken only by the 12 million people of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora.  The best Haitian Creole dictionary lists about 40,000 words.  Spelling has been standardized for less than 35 years, and strictly follows pronunciation of the language’s 32 distinct sounds.  There are no silent letters.  Merely knowing how to pronounce the letters of the alphabet enables a person to read (though not necessarily understand).   There is no conjugation in the language; verbs have one form only, tense and person being indicated by the use of small marker words. Pluralization of nouns and indication of possession are also indicated by adding certain markers.  There is no grammatical gender, meaning that adjectives and articles need not agree with the noun they modify. There is no passive voice.  Due to its limited lexicon, Haitian Creole must borrow heavily from other languages, especially when it comes to technical terms.

When it comes to translation, names present a small problem.  In Haiti, one’s family name is expressed first and given names afterward.  Initially I found this very confusing and sometimes still do, as knowing that in English the order is inverted, some Haitians will make the “correction” when giving me their name.  I am known here by most as Mr. Barry, an aberration resulting from like confusion.

Cultural context plays a huge role in translational problems.  As Anthony Burgess wrote, “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”  Many of the things I describe when questioned about Canada (one of Haitians’ favourite things to ask me about) are beyond their experience.  I can present an interesting and informative abstraction, but nevertheless an abstraction.   How do I explain hockey (everywhere else in the world called ice hockey) to Haitians when their experiential concept of ice is limited to something they buy to cool their drinks?  There is a whole culture tied up in that word that would require hours to begin to explain, and even then Haitians would not understand the contextual meaning.

Haitians, coming from a relatively small country, cannot get their head around the immensity of Canada.   Most have a very limited concept of distance, and although they can learn my country is 4850km from The Island to The Rock, that distance remains beyond their comprehension, akin to us trying to visualize the distance from Earth to Alpha Centauri.

I have learned that even basic words have a cultural basis.  For example, when teaching my students how to greet others in English, it became necessary to shift their concept of time slightly.  In Haitian Creole one says bonjou (good day) until 11AM and then shifts to bonswa (good evening).  This greeting is considered appropriate for the rest of the day.

Some words and phrases are so culturally bound that an outsider is very unlikely to ever have a thorough enough understanding of the culture to truly understand them.  When Haitians talk about zonbi (and they often do), it has little to do with what is presented in Hollywood horror films.   There is a whole belief system tied up in the word, and only with a deep acquaintance with Vodou can a non-Haitian even begin to understand it.

Even seemingly familiar things present difficulties.  It is difficult to translate farm into Creole and have a Haitian visualize the immense agribusiness operations of the Prairies.  Here, those who till the land work a one- or two-acre jadin, which translates as garden, but is more like small market gardens than the plots in Canadian backyards.  And mosquitoes?  To Haitians that means dinky little insects that one can barely see, not the critters with landing lights that frequent Manitoba and northwestern Ontario.

Generally Haitians see dogs differently than do Canadians.  The remarkably uniform small, light brown, greyhound-like dogs of Haiti are creatures to be despised, to kick when they are near enough and throw stones at if farther away.  Although people own dogs, they seldom feed them or care for them.  Most Haitians fear larger dogs regardless of temperament.  So how does one convey the idea of dogs as “man’s best friend,” a part of the family to be doted upon?

Colours revealed another cultural divergence.  The spectrum is a continuum with no clear boundaries between colours.  Haitians divide it differently than Canadians, and I am sometimes confused with the word they choose for a particular colour.  Haitians describe my skin colour not as white, but as red.  When Haitians call me blan, they simply mean foreigner, not referring to me as white as a literal translation would suggest.

Emotions are multilayered and emotional words sometimes do not translate well from culture to culture.  Most people struggle with relating emotive words in their own language to what they are feeling.  Haitians often display behaviour, especially tone of voice, that most Canadians would interpret as anger, but which here is just part of normal conversation.  Jealousy and envy are emotions Canadians would assign their standard English-language dictionary definitions.   In Haiti, however, they are to be feared, taking on a much more malignant character to the point of being lethal.

Sometimes the limited number of words in Haitian Creole poses challenges.  While Canadians have an ever-expanding range of words to describe their beloved vehicles, in Haitian Creole all vehicles of standard size are called machin regardless of body style.  Only large trucks are given a different term, although many often refer to these as machin as well.

I found among my male students a trend that posed difficulty.  Drawn to American black culture, they understandably listen to the current dominant music genre of that culture—rap.  They emulate rappers in their dress, gestures and speech.  I have had to explain that rappers most often use “bad” English (I use that term advisedly), that many of the words they employ are slang and some are inappropriate in polite company (another concept that differs with culture).  I have pointed out that speaking English like a rapper will not endear them to prospective employers or gain them admittance to college.

Translating English idioms into Creole can be a nightmare.  How could raining cats and dogs possibly mean anything intelligible to a Haitian?   The flip side is no easier.  Literal translation simply doesn’t work.  The Creole phrase W’ap gate san m! literally, You spoiled my blood! conveys the same idea as the English idiom dumb as a doorknob.  I find that on the whole, translating ideas rather than words is far more effective.  But it still takes some creative thinking to come up with something that clearly imparts the spirit of an English idiom.  But the real problem lies in that the meaning of an idiom comes not from the words themselves, but from the originating culture.

As you can see, it is as plain as the nose on your face that staying on the same wavelength as Haitians while teaching them English necessitates I keep on my toes.  Try translating that sentence and have it make any sense to Haitians!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2013 6:25 pm

    I relate to everything you said! One more thing that makes my role as English teacher to Haitian secondary students difficult: American song lyrics. There are a lot of inappropriate things I don’t want to translate/explain!

    I hope it’s okay that I link to this post.

    • March 3, 2013 6:36 pm


      I have young guys coming to me with whole lists of very inappropriate stuff, and they have no idea what they are saying. They just learn when it’s “appropriate” to say those things. As I wrote in my post, many young people here are picking up on the worst of North American culture because that’s what they see in videos, and that’s what has entered popular music here. Sad.


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