The Limitations of Language

pipes with adjustments

Last week I was sitting in a conference room eating lunch between sessions during a management meeting.  Two people across from me were having a discussion in Spanish.  At the end of the table, two more in German.  Beside me was a heated discussion amongst three others in Hebrew about a controversial meeting topic.  And immediately behind me was an escalating political discussion in Catalan.  I was the only one in the room whose primary language was English.  The only one.

I have been considering for some time the limitations of language.  And in this moment I realized that limitation comes in many, many forms.  At the most basic level the twenty of us in the meeting last week spoke different primary languages.  The meeting was in English so I became the dedicated translator when they were unable to find the word that they most wanted to express their idea.  Sometimes this translation would go like this – a primary Catalan turned to another who speaks Catalan who then thinks aloud in Spanish (her primary language) and asks me, in better but still challenged English, how to say x, y, or z…and which point I could assist. Did I get it right?  They believed so, but I wasn’t really sure I had served their idea with the best possible choice.  I hope so.

Even outside of language differences, we are limited by language.  Sometimes I cannot find a specific word to convey my point.  At other times, there is no specific word to capture my feeling.  In sharing some of my experiences in Spain with my children or Padraic over the phone I couldn’t explain to them how something really tasted or looked or felt.  And, even if I could have found the “right” word, it may not carry exactly the same meaning for them.  Whether it is a language barrier or a conveyance barrier, I suddenly realized just how much is being lost…in translation.

I am on a plane back to New York City after 10 days as I write this.  As much as I loved Spain and experiencing that culture the isolation due to language was difficult.  Nobody on the streets of Barcelona spoke my language enough to even give me directions.  I couldn’t understand what the cab drivers needed to know.  Sidebar conversations during my meetings, where things of significance happen, were happening primarily in Spanish or Catalan and I was missing key thoughts and ideas that I needed.  The limitations of language kept me very separate from everyone around me.

In the face of these limitations, I chose to do something that I would normally recoil from in my comfortable home surroundings.  I connected with the world fully in a very different way ~ through my senses.  For these 10 days I decided to just experience life as it came at me and not try to capture it with words.  Rather, to just live it. 

The menus are not in English.  For over a week, I had no idea what I was eating.  It was only after I tried what had been served that I had the courage to ask my colleagues what it was, and the list is long:  calcots (immense green onions), octopus, rabbit, duck, local goat cheese, the cheek of a cow, claras (beer and lemonade mixed), goose liver, assorted fish complete with skin and bones (that at least I recognized), kangaroo, squid, tripe, too many cheeses to possibly name, and the list goes on and on. The flavors and aromas were intense and, with very few exceptions, I enjoyed them. 

I allowed myself to get lost in Barcelona in the dark and narrow alleys where I would never wander at home.  For the first hour I kept looking over my shoulder but, after that, I settled into the meandering cobblestone and just ‘felt’ the place…cheerful in gray…which makes perfect sense to me but may make no sense to you at all.  I allowed myself to feel awe-struck (again, not quite right) at the immensity and significance of the Basilica at La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi in all of its balance and intention.  It was like entering Oz.  (Maybe that description resonates.)

I paid careful attention to the feelings in my body.  My throbbing feet after walking for two days.  My grumbling stomach at the wrong times of day because the lunch and dinner hours differ in Spain from what we are accustomed to here.  My sadness sometimes.  My tension at wondering if I was representing myself well professionally.  My fear.  I paid attention to what my body was telling me and experienced the world within me as another kind of language that is normally overshadowed by verbal exchange. I was now keenly aware of it.

I had to drop my ‘Pandora Habit’ because of licensing restrictions.  So, I had no access to the American music that I like to listen to when I write.  I might have gone to YouTube, but I chose not to.  I turned on the local stations and listened to Spanish music which seemed to set a different internal tone for me as well.  This is duly noted and that may come in handy later when I return home and find myself stressed.  I may want to resurrect it then along with the calm it brings.

My camera and I decided to partner again.  We have been at odds for over a year and have chosen not to work together.  But, during this trip, it was my primary tool for capturing the vibrant colors of the Spanish festival in the streets and stained glass reflections off the organ pipes at sunrise at the Basilica.  I let the colors evoke certain feelings for which I certainly have no words.  Perhaps the featured photo on this blog post of those organ pipes will evoke some in you as well. 

Being without language is certainly limiting.  And, even with it, things are sometimes lost in translation.  But these 10 days also taught me just how much else in life is also lost sometimes because of it.  I am grateful for this awareness.

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