Universal Translator

I love language. After time-travel, the alien language translator is probably one of my favorite science fiction themes. Most science fiction uses the highly-technical automatic translator as a simple solution to the obvious problem of interplanetary linguistic differences. After all, it doesn’t take a ton of critical thinking to recognize that Joe from the Bronx goes glassy-eyed trying to decipher a greeting from Australian Steve. It would be a six and a half separate jobs to effectively speak with beings from the other side of the galaxy. Star Trek‘s Universal Translator, Doctor Who‘s Translation Matrix in the TARDIS, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s Babel fish; I know they’re all just a vehicle to skirt the communication issue and get right to storytelling, but I love them all the same.

Sometimes I wish I had one of them to learn what others are saying, but I also know that translation is almost never perfect, and ideas lose so much depth of flavor in a poor translation, and instead of wishing I had a universal translator, translation matrix, or a Babel fish, I wish that I were one. Well, I don’t really want to be a Babel fish. I don’t really want to live out my days in someone else’s ear canal.

I picked up an old hobby this weekend after being inspired by another blogger I’ve found in the WordPress community: I logged back into Duolingo for the first time in several years and began polishing up some faded and tarnished multilingual skills. My brain feels like it’s had the windows flung open after a dark, quiet winter and a team of domestic servants are swooshing out the stale air, beating dust from the rugs and uncovering furniture.

I have studied quite a few languages over the years, and while I know a lot of people would disagree, it’s a type of learning that I very much enjoy, even before a friend suggested Duolingo, which feels more like a game. I’ve never been confident enough to say that I’m fluent, or even close, though. I have a hard enough time speaking English, stumbling aloud over thoughts that are much easier for me to express in writing.

That’s probably why I gravitated initially to Latin. We did occasionally read and speak aloud in class, but unless you’re particularly invested in the Catholic church, there isn’t much need to translate into Latin, especially in a conversational manner. Speaking it aloud in class usually included everyone, the teacher included, giggling at names like “Furianus.”

Latin remained one of my favorite classes throughout high school, and I took all four years of it. One of my Latin teachers also offered a Greek club after school to the most committed Latin students. I was invited to Greek club and went, but regrettably didn’t apply myself to Greek as much as I should have. I learned the alphabet, but with my other classes and extracurriculars, I just couldn’t give it the attention it deserved.

Latin wasn’t offered at my university, so I couldn’t continue my studies with that. I knew that my Latin would give me a leg up with any of the romance languages, though, and ended up taking three semesters of French. College feels like a long time ago, but that was certainly the most intensive language course I’ve taken, and we actually had to speak it, so if I had to speak to another human being today in anything other than English, I would probably be most comfortable with French.

I couldn’t resist the allure of slightly less practical languages, though, and soon found myself in a Biblical Hebrew class, which I also immensely enjoyed. My skills of learning a new alphabet from Greek club came in handy as I learned another alphabet, and even with the limited studies I had, I felt I gained valuable insight to scripture I had heard all my life. The timing ended up, though, that I only got one semester of Hebrew before my semester abroad, and when I returned, my Hebrew professor and her husband (another professor I had learned a lot from) had moved away, and the course had been dropped.

I filled the void with Biblical Greek, and enjoyed the head start that I had with the alphabet. Greek grammar was formulaically similar to Latin grammar, which was also comforting in its familiarity. It was another brilliant class, but it was the fall semester of my senior year, and a graduation audit revealed one class that I absolutely had to have to graduate but which was only offered at the same time as the second semester of Biblical Greek. My tearful disappointment may have been a sign that I was pursuing the wrong degree, but I had nobody to blame but myself and it was certainly too late to change direction.

I had known that learning French was less practical than Spanish (geographically speaking), but it became undeniable when I began working at the library. We served a large Hispanic community, and I soon wished I could communicate with the many patrons who came in either unable to speak any English or lacking the confidence in their abilities to try. My dear friend and former college roommate had minored in Spanish and recommended Duolingo to learn some Spanish. I practiced a lot, but was never fluent enough for it to be much help at the library. I was able to say “Yo hablo un poco! un pocito!” and smile apologetically as I didn’t have the vocabulary to help them find the legal forms and services they were looking for. The most success I had was leaving a voicemail about an available hold that said “Esta es la biblioteca. Tenemos un libro por Juan.” It was less detailed than my English messages, but I think it was appreciated. Even though I’m not at the library anymore, I’m not far removed from that community, so I’m still practicing.

So I’ve logged back into Duolingo after giving up on it a couple years ago, and I’m spending a little time each day polishing up on some languages. They’ve added so many options since I last used it, and I got a little carried away dusting the cobwebs off my account. I still have Spanish and French going to keep them from drying up completely in my mind. When Kalen and I eventually get to reschedule our Europe trip that the pandemic unceremoniously cancelled, I am determined to order authentic French pastries in French.

And just making an effort at the local language does a lot for good will. I fondly remember how just learning “please” and “thank you” helped on that marvelous spring break in Greece during my semester abroad. I still have one friend on Facebook whom I met on that trip and sometimes when Facebook doesn’t automatically translate her posts, I try to sound out the Greek words to see if there are any I recognize. She and I aren’t close, but I thought it would be neat if I could actually read what she shares. So I added modern Greek to my Duolingo.

And if I’m learning Greek, I really ought to learn Portuguese so that sometime I can go visit my Brazilian brother, whom my parents hosted as an exchange student.

And, well, if I’m blogging on a page called Quid Facis, and calling out on the home page that it is in fact a Latin phrase, I really probably ought to brush up on my (now very rusty indeed) Latin.

My brain just might scramble itself learning, relearning, and practicing French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Portuguese. I thought about adding Hebrew as well, as I enjoyed my course in college, but I might save it for later on, when I’m a little more comfortable with what I’ve already taken on. But if my writing starts to make a little less sense, you’ll know why.

À bientôt! Adiós! Valete! Aντίο! Tchau! Until next time!

4 thoughts on “Universal Translator

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  1. I am working on German every day on Duolingo and loving it. Some of their words are like English with a different pronunciation, but sometimes putting into a sentence is like the little cartoon guy as he rearranges the sentence in the middle of a cloud of words. Sometimes when I am struggling to remember a word in German, a French words from high school French class (50 years ago!) pops in and I say to it “What are you doing here?” Even if I never engage in oral conversation with a German speaker it is still a good cognitive exercise as well as a pleasing “I can” activity. Bis spater.

    1. Sounds like you’re having a great time learning, Janene! I haven’t studied German, but my grandparents grew up speaking German and sometimes used “unconventional” word order I’m English, so your cartoon guy sounds like an apt description! 😂

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