Found in Translation

How language brings us together—and drives us apart.
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A Soviet officer during World War II (RIA Novosti via Wikimedia Commons)

Around the time I came to The Atlantic, and just after my first book was published, I started seriously doing television and radio for the first time. It was not then uncommon for people to comment on my accent, my syntax, and my all-around need to "Think Of The Children" whenever I spoke. I never came up worrying about any of this. There's a kind of black household where speech is obsessed over, where grandmothers make you deposit a nickel for every "ain't" and "finna," where aunts respond to "Where they at?" with "right behind that preposition."

I actually never understood that one. 

When I started writing it was as an MC. After Rakim, my greatest influences were the rhythms inherent in the common speech all around me. There were drums, as Zora Neale Hurston would say, tucked into these voices, and I have tried since those days as a five-foot MC to bring those same drums to anything I write. I never had much reason to "speak proper," as very few poets, and very few print journalists, cared about such things. In general, I thought that what was "proper" on the basketball court was not what was "proper" in a job interview, and that was not what was "proper" for writers, like me, and that, still, would never be proper for the lawyer approaching the bench. I believe my son should learn "standard English," much for the same reason I believe he should learn "standard French" and "standard Spanish." On the whole, knowledge beats ignorance every time. 

The other day, I watched an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee for the first, and regrettably last, time. (Jerry, how I used to love you.) The episode featured the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh. At one point Elmaleh said to Seinfeld, "I don't understand baseball and I know you would never explain me how it works." In many African-American homes, Gad would have been out of a nickel. I found it amusing. In French, to ask someone to explain something, you can say, "Expliquez-moi"—which literally reads in English as "Explain me." There was nothing wrong about Elmaleh's actual thoughts, nor the message he was trying to convey. He was not speaking bad English, he was speaking in French grammar and using English words.  And this—like a man driving to the hoop in coat and tails—was amusing. 

This has been one of the small great lessons in studying French. People don't so much speak bad English, or bad "any language," as they resort to their familiar clothes, activity be damned. When the Ukrainian says "Why always Boris?" instead of "Why do they always call me Boris?" he is not being immoral, nor corrupting the children, so much as he is telling you something about his native tongue. And when the African-American tells you, "My wife been done gone" he too, is carrying other languages, though we are not yet sure which. But packaging matters to us, and language is but a specimen of this fact. 

I was reading some pages from Anne Applebaum, the other day, on perceptions of the Russians as they drove the Germans back through Poland and then into Germany at the end of World War II.

Dig this:

When describing what happened, many spoke of a “new Mongol invasion,” using language tinged with xenophobia to evoke the unprecedented scale of the violence. George Kennan was reminded of the “Asiatic hordes.” Sándor Márai remembered them being “like a completely different human race whose reflexes and responses didn’t make any sense.” John Lukacs recalled “dark, round, Mongol faces, with narrow eyes, incurious and hostile.

Kennan thought that Soviet brutality had no parallel in modern Europe. The Red Army certainly was brutal, but not unparalleled. In under a decade, Hitler murdered some 11 million people. I'm not sure that his victims ever saw much sense in their executioners, either. And one need not go back to the time of Asiatic hordes to find devastation in Europe. It was Count Tilly,  hailing from modern-day Belgium, who gave us the phrase "Magdeburg Justice," an episode born in a conflict at the very heart of Europe which served to reduce the German population by as much as one quarter. A consistent theme in my reading is that of a "Western Europe," where brutality is logical, if immoral, and "Eastern Europe," where brutality hints at something inexplicable, Oriental, dark, and primitive. I think I know something of that.

If you get a chance, check out this video of Pussy Riot on The Colbert Show. It's cool to watch the translations back and forth. (I suspect they have some English skills also, but prefer to speak in Russian.) The humor is never lost, which is to say the thoughts are never lost and are, on some level, the same. Humor sometimes depends on culture, but culture is not inexplicable and the thoughts undergirding humor do not pause for geography.

Why do we impute morality into language? I suspect for the same reasons we need to see the Russian "hordes" as Asiatic aliens, and Stalin, not simply as evil, but as evil that defies comprehension. But if you look closely, there is always science, there is always a method. Applebaum's great success is that instead of offering a litany of Soviet evils, she explains them. Soviet communism functioned like missionary Christianity—a veneer of respectability for a ruthless imperialism. And reading this, I can see how I too might have been swept away.

Yesterday it was a chapter where Applebaum discusses the secret camps in the Soviet Union where international communists were educated. The international communists felt privileged by the allure of clandestine knowledge held in the inner sanctums of the party. I thought, "That could have been me, too." And, as I've said before,  I think that's the point of it all. To find yourself there, in another language, in another place, and feel the fragility of your morality, to feel the common nature in even your most treasured thoughts.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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