The serendipitous intersection of language

Something that has never ceased to fascinate me is the art of translation. Being bilingual and growing up in dual cultures, I realize quite obviously that there are phrases that cannot be translated accurately. These lost in translation treasures are uniquely defined by the connotation that comes with the phrase. There are histories, feelings, memories, cultures associated with the phrase that cannot be carried over to a corresponding phrase in another language with the same denotation. Specific words make you feel specific things. Even the sounds that make up a word mean things to us. There are combinations of letters that make us feel a cacophonous sound; likewise there are soothing words.

One of my favorite things in the world is when the stars align and two words or phrases of different cultures can line up in more than one quality. These qualities that I am talking about include meaning, literal translation, and phonetic similarity. Of course, these qualities aren’t limited to these. I see these connections as different points on a plane. Disparate points can become connected through serendipitous means, creating beautiful once-in-a-lifetime intersections. It’s like meeting your soulmate, it’s magical.

Before moving onto examples I would like to start the discussion by talking about the craft of translation. I have learned to appreciate translation so much more after reading creative works of Rumi translated by Coleman Barks and the many novels of Haruki Murakami. Words are powerful, and no word is chosen without reason in writing. How can one even convey close to the original thought if one had to use a set of completely different vocabulary. Thus is the art of translation. It is finding the essence of those words, which to me is a feeling. It’s an emotion. I can read a paragraph, close my eyes and feel an emotion about those words that I just read. It’s not just the tone of the piece, but a lot more. A lot deeper. It’s a version of synesthesia we all possess. These artists take in the words and let them create an image in their mind. Then they pluck from a separate vocabulary words that build up to a similar essence. This is one of the more general wonders of the intersection of language.

Moving on to a more micro scale, phrases. In English we say “spending time” as an idiomatic way to express the passing of time. In Chinese the literal phrase is the same, 花时间, the spending of time. The fact that two different cultures separated by thousands of miles and centuries can describe an abstract concept with the same metaphor is amazing to me.

Now to some real life examples that I absolutely obsess over. Many of these are the intersection of translation and transliteration. One of the best examples I can think of is Coca-Cola. The Chinese translation for this brand is 可口可乐 which in Chinese pinyin is spelled ke ko ke le. The literal meaning of the phrase is good tasting, able to produce happiness. What a better way to translate the name of such a brand? I feel like it’s ingenious. It makes me so happy that such an alignment exists. There are many other words that aligns this way. In the book The Bonesetter’s Daughter I believe there was mentioned how the English word situation sounded like the Chinese counterpart 事情. Even such a small intersection makes me unbelievably joyful.

I also need to mention the many picture writings I saw in the United Arab Emirates. There, they enjoyed a form of calligraphy that shaped the words into pictures. Most likely stemming from that art form, Dubai’s city logo is the name of the city in English but also Arabic, written as one word. The English is read left to right and the Arabic is read right to left, but the logo beautifully lets the reader interpret the name both ways. I absolutely cannot love this anymore than I do. dubai-logo

An artist that I chanced upon while I was at the American University of Sharjah was Haji Noor Deen. Noor Deen is a Chinese Muslim who is fluent in both Arabic and Chinese. He specializes in both Arabic and Chinese calligraphy. His artwork is unique in that he combines Chinese and Arabic words into one word that can be interpreted two ways in his calligraphy. This simple example of Noor Deen’s work is the word Allah in Arabic if the scroll is flipped counterclockwise 90 degrees. As it is oriented it means lord in Chinese. The sheer virtuosity of the artist to make this connection astounds me.


With this I wrap up my musing. Language is beautiful, I continuously fall in love with words. When two language spheres can overlap and marry, the beauty is only intensified.



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