This simple and quintessentially British way of indicating understanding
isn’t easily translated – not least because, very often, to see is not necessarily
to comprehend. There’s an old TV ad for the Guardian newspaper which
encapsulates this very well. Three shots: 1) a man in a coat running as if from a
car in pursuit, 2) the same man coming up quickly behind another man as if to
assault him, 3) the coated man pouncing on and pushing the other aside just in
time to save him from being crushed by a huge falling object. The ad’s strapline
exhorts viewers to buy the Guardian in order to get ‘the whole picture’. How often
do we see the whole picture, or anything close to it?
The fact that the British regularly use the expression ‘I see’ doesn’t mean
that they always get the full view or have particularly penetrative powers
of perception. Rather, it’s more suggestive of the endearingly clipped and
understated manner many British people have. Carried literally into other
languages the expression might read: ich sehe, je regarde, meh dekhia, ik zie. All
of these renditions would strike the native reader as odd. In order to convey the
true meaning of the English, a translator needs to use the native equivalent: ich
verstehe, je comprends, meh samaj-gia, ik begrijp het.
I wonder to what extent the language that we inhabit, its quirks and limitations,
affects our ways of thinking and being. Perhaps only those who speak more than
one language are really in a position to know this – and there are quite a few
of them here in The Hague. More than 40% of the population is not of Dutch
origin, and the microcosm of the world represented at the Crossing Border
festival is even more multi-cultural and lingual. Khaled Mattawa, Libyan poet
and translater from Arabic into English, commented that once you’ve translated
something language never feels quite the same again. He said, ‘common things
Sasa Stanisic, Yugoslavian born and now writing in German, did a reading and
discussion in English. He talked about scenes and characters from his novel,
improvising charmingly and unhesitatingly wherever the exact English word
would not come to him. So, ‘peace pauses’ was the lovely equivalent of ‘ceasefire’
and ‘peoples nationality count’ was enough to suggest ‘census’. And you can see
here, in these creatively extemporized solutions, what Mattawa meant by the
freshness translation bestows on language. Even if it isn’t necessarily ‘perfect’,
it briefly illuminates things in a different hue, giving us another aspect of the
picture – even if it’s an image we think we know.
Maybe there is no such thing as a ‘whole picture’. But what we can certainly aim
for is a fuller one. And you can get close to that at the Crossing Border festival.
Its synaesthetic aspect makes for a richly layered experience. Music, film, art,
the written word – these form the cultural palette from which we can colour our
world. The more we use them, the better we will see.