Divine Translation: The Word Became Flesh

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14a

The Word become flesh is the most breathtaking, precise translation of language ever accomplished.

In all other cases, there is something lost in translation, the nuances and intimacies of the native tongue sanded away until only the general message remains. But in this one, the precision is only intensified because the translator is also the Creator, knowing the hearts of the people He is speaking to and exactly how to reach them.

The truth of God, His mind, His heart, His message, translated into our flesh-language, the language of skin that bristles in the cold, is singed by the fire, that stretches, wrinkles, dies.

The Word become flesh is a translation of eternal omnipresence into a finite house of one human’s consciousness, a consciousness often clouded by hunger and cold and loneliness.

The Word become flesh is a translation of omnipotence into backaches and sweat and veins that would open and leak life away.

The Word become flesh is beautifully inefficient. An efficient translation would trade nuance for speed and intimacy for numbers, but He chose to save us by growing up in obscurity, 30 years of humility in mundane labor, living an unseen life so similar to ours. And then, in His ministry, again and again He slowed and stopped to listen to the individual, to hear their story to to speak healing into it.

God’s ways are higher than ours, His wisdom and love beyond our comprehension, but He has revealed them to us in the language that we can understand: Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And I pray that you would let this language rest in your heart, that you would know, personally, the depth of God’s love that is in Christ, our Lord, our Savior, the Word become flesh.

Learning Tatar

Although Tatarstan is politically a part of the Russian Federation, I am constantly reminded that at the same time, it is a country and culture all its own. Beautiful mosques share the scene with Orthodox churches, Tatar delicacies such as chak-chak and mantiy are served just as often as  borsch and kasha, and most exciting for a language lover, the beautiful yet still-unintelligible sounds of Tatar can be heard alongside Russian on the street, on the radio, and (yikes) even in my classroom.

Tatarstan May Finally Get Lyrics For Its Anthem

The Flag of Tatarstan*The green represents Islam, the red, Russia, and the white line, the peace between the Muslim Tatar majority and the Russian minority.

Over half of the population did not learn Russian as their first language, but rather acquired it in their early years at school while continuing to speak Tatar at home. This bilingual balancing act, although the norm for many teachers and students I’ve talked to, has made a huge impression on me. I find it amazing to watch those at my university speed through a phone conversation in Tatar, answer someone in Russian, then address me in English. When I found out I would be living in Tatarstan for 9 months, I made it my goal to at least learn the basics of Tatar while I was here, and I’ve finally had the time to devote to the study of this difficult yet fascinating language.

Altay-what?

To give you an idea of just how different Tatar is from English, take a look at this wonderful little tree diagram of the world’s language families. Although the Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian as of higher difficulty to learn for an English speaker than the Romance languages, what many people don’t realize is that English and Russian are actually in the same language family, Indo-European. Although there are significant linguistic differences between the two, there are actually more similarities than you might think. But Tatar, oh Tatar…Tatar isn’t even in the same language family as English. At the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see a tiny little branch reaching to the left: this represents the Altaic family, of which the most familiar language is Turkish.

Photo Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

Chart Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

What this means for the language learner beginning from an Indo-European frame of reference is that he has to open his mind to a extremely different way of processing language both grammatically and phonetically. A difficult task, but so far it’s been as fun as it has been frustrating.

Take out that IPA chart and get cracking!

The sounds of Tatar have been more difficult to produce than I expected, since when I first arrived and I was taught how to count to 5, I was praised on how good my accent was. This was due to a few phonemes that exist both in English and Tatar that are not found in Russian, such as [ae], the vowel sound found in “bad,” “cat,” etc. Note, this [ae] sound is written as ә, which was confusing at first.

But as I’ve analyzed the phonemic inventory more closely, it’s become clear that Tatar has sounds I’ve never attempted to make before, except perhaps in Dr. Bird’s phonetics class 🙂  The language is written in Cyrillic, but because there are sounds that do not occur in Russian, there are the added letters:

һ (close to an English h.)

ө (close to the vowel sound in the British “bird,” “word.”)

ә (a as in “back,” “cat,”)

ү (an “oo” sound pronounced further back than the English version.)

ң (ng as in “sing.”)

җ (in between j in “Johnson” and zh in “rouge.”)

These extra letters though, do not represent all of the different sounds. For example, what is written in Cyrillic as г (g) can be pronounced two different ways. Most difficult for me so far has been producing a sound that is close to the English k, but is pronounced further back. In linguistic terms, English the English k ([k])requires you to touch your velum with the back of your tongue, but in Tatar, the k, realized as [q] is often produced by touching the back of your tongue to the uvula. When I hear native speakers do it, it sounds like a k with a popping noise. And that is just one sound out of many; I won’t even get started on vowel harmony.

Let’s Agglutinate!

Although the phonetics of Tatar are difficult, the core of the difficulty for a speaker of an Indo-European language comes in making the mental transition from an inflected grammatical system  to a system of agglutination. In college, we learned the definition of agglutinative by remembering that in these languages, grammatical components and words were glued together (And if I remember correctly, both “glue” and “agglutinative” share the same root.) Both inflected and agglutinative languages use affixes to express grammar, but agglutinative languages are different in that you take a root word and keep stacking suffixes on the end until the word is about a page long. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s what it seems like to a beginner.  Prefixes and prepositions do not exist in an agglutinative languages, but their functions are rather expressed in suffixes that must be added in a specific order. One nice thing about agglutinative languages though, is that a morpheme codes for just one meaning, rather than many, like in Russian. For example, in Tatar, the suffix -ка always denotes that a noun is the direct object, whereas the Russian  -у can denote masculine dative case, feminine accusative case, or even prepositional case.

Here’s an example of this agglutinative magic:

English: In my books

Russian: В моих книгах

Tatar: book: китап (kitap),  plural morpheme: лар (lar), possessive morpheme: ым (iym), time/locational case: да (da)

Order of agglutination: root+plural morpheme+possessive morpheme+case morpheme=

китабларымда (kitablariymda)= in my books

As you can see, what is expressed by three words in both English and Russian is expressed in Tatar in one long, complex word. The system of verbs is similarly complicated, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding Tatar grammar. However, I am happy to say that I have learned quite a few new words and phrases to balance out the intensity of learning grammar. My strategy has been similar to it was when I started Russian, in a word: songs. When I decided I wanted to speak Russia, I printed out song lyrics, translated them, then listened to the songs and practiced them over and over. This was great for pronunciation, memorization, and was much more enjoyable than slaving over a textbook. In addition to learning some basic phrases, such as “исәнмесез” (isanmesez, hello), “рәхмәт” (rakhmat, thank you), and “әйдә” (ayda), I’ve been listening to and translating a simple song with to broaden my vocabulary and become familiar with the phraseology and grammar. It’s already working: today I found this Tatar music video and I was able to pick out the phrases: “You are my love,” and “you are my destiny.” Give it a listen if you’re curious as to how Tatar sounds. Well, that’s it for now! Сау булыгыз! (sau bulighiz, goodbye!)

*Flag of Tatarstan credit: http://kazantimes.com/politics/tatarstan-may-finally-get-lyrics-for-its-anthem/ 

The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.

Second Language

It is an uncomfortable way to live, to be able to understand yet to lack the means to be understood, to be able to receive, but not to give, to be able to perceive the inside but still be an outsider, desperately pounding on a door you’ve longed to enter for almost a decade.

It is a frustrating way to exist, to love the rich sounds of this language, your ears delighting in the dance of trilled rs and softened consonants, but to find them uncomfortable and awkward on your tongue, your mouth seemingly filled with gravel. And if your mouth is filled with gravel, your brain is like a record player that constantly skips, the possibility of beautiful music constantly mocked by jarring stops and starts. No sooner have you started a sentence then you realize that it will lead to the dead end of your native framework, a constant impediment to truly entering this second language.

You know thousands of words, but it turns out that words are not enough. Knowing how to say “blackmail” and “lisp” and “intangible phenomenon” do nothing to help you break through these invisible barriers. You know that they can be prevailed against, many before you have somehow broken through, but their secret is a mystery. These barriers are abstract and non-quantifiable, and no formulas or textbooks can explain why your heart still races when you enter a produkti, rehearsing over and over in your head the simple words that you learned years ago, “chai chorniy.” You can read Chekhov and understand the rapid speech of news anchors, yet you stand foreign and awkward when someone addresses you on the street, either silent and confused or offering a messy version of the words that you know in theory so well.

You want to know what it feels like to think in this new framework, to walk down the street and realize that your wandering thoughts were actually in the language of this country, but for now, all you can do is wait. All you can do is keep chipping away at the barriers, mouthing the soft “Ls” as you walk to work, forcing yourself to offer conversation when all you want to do is be silent. All you can do is keep pounding on the door steadily, claiming joy in each fragment of paint that you scrape off, with the hope that one day in the not so distant future, you will break down the door and enter.

 

 

Living Adverbially: The Eureka Moment of Two Nerds

This post is dedicated to my friend Kelly, who gave an age-old truth new life by (beautifully), (intelligently), and (thoughtfully) finding the right words.

We sat on a slab of wood along the bank of the Erie Canal, eating frozen custard and swatting at the mosquitos that peppered the August air. Though two years had passed since we had last seen each other, Kelly is one of those rare friends with whom I share a common language not marred by time or distance, so it was no surprise that we were now engrossed in a conversation somewhere under the broad category of “the meaning of life.”

In our conversation, Kelly discovered a simple yet profound phrase that made life seem to retreat from the distortion of fun-house mirrors into the light of clear day.

“I want to live adverbially,” she said.

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adverb n.

“An adverb is a part of speech that normally serves to modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, clauses, and sentences. Adverbs answer such questions as how?, when?, where?, in what way?, or how often?”

Adverbs (seemingly) exist as second-class citizens in the hierarchy of the English lexicon. In English classes, we are told that adverbs are the least necessary part of speech, that you can (easily) delete them without changing the meaning of the sentence. In fact, using (too) many adverbs is a stylistic weakness. Instead of (lazily) inserting an adverb to describe the word “went,” you should (violently) discard the adverb like a smelly banana peel, and instead, (confidently) choose a precise little verb like “scooted” or “slunk.” It is my theory that if the parts of speech were on Survivor, the adverb would be voted out at the first tribal council, being (wrongly) typecast as the bikini clad model who is nice to look at, but (unfortunately) is (basically) useless.

Noun n.

“The part of speech that names a person, place, thing, or idea. The following words are nouns: child , town , granite , kindness , government , elephant , and Taiwan . In sentences, nouns generally function as subjects or as objects.”

It is nouns who sit (pompously) on their concrete or abstract thrones of security, knowing that they are under no threat of being (inhumanely) struck through by an editor’s inky sword. They have no fear of being ignored or discarded, because sentences (simply) can’t exist without them. They are the subjects and the objects, the alphas and omegas of the kingdom of words, the undeniable focus of our sentences.

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The hierarchy of the parts of speech is amoral when describing grammar, but nouns do not only boast kingship in the realm of abstract language, but in the concrete living of our lives. Just as they do in our sentences, the nouns of our lives tend to function as the subjects or objects of our focus. We are told by our culture that nouns define us. Nouns like success, money, achievement, and security become our reasons for existence.

We seek after these nouns, continually unhappy because we mistake them as the end goal. A sentence cannot be formed without a noun, and likewise, we believe that life is not worthwhile without the needed nouns. We push the adverbs of our lives to the wayside, those words that describe how we live, and in doing so, the verbs with which we strive for the nouns are tinted with exhaustion and hopelessness. We work (anxiously), we save money (fearfully), we achieve (greedily). The nouns lose their luster when negative adverbs define a life; the thrill of an achievement or a paycheck is dull and quick in comparison to the lengthy angst that pacing our lives with negative adverbs creates.

When Kelly said, “I want to live adverbially,” she proposed a complete paradigm shift in the way we view our lives. That we focus less on our physical circumstances, and more on our reactions to them. That we focus less on the end result of our work, and more on fulfilling the process gracefully. We don’t always have control over our nouns, but we do have control over our adverbs. I am always amazed when I hear stories of those much less fortunate than me who live their lives with immense joy. Whether pained by sickness or poverty, these special people live out the adverbial life, and their joy is untouchable.

I, on the other, hand, often find that true joy eludes me because I do not fight against the default adverbs that I have allowed to direct my thoughts and actions. The adverbs “fearfully,” and “anxiously” have constantly modified my verbs and tainted my nouns, and it is my hope that as I grow, I can learn to own the adverbs, “confidently,” and “trustingly.”

Living adverbially is not a new idea; Paul describes the peace of living adverbially through the strength of God in Philippians 4:12-13: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

No, living adverbially is not a new idea, but the power of being content whatever the circumstances has become so mired in clichés that its beauty couldn’t strike me until Kelly found the words that would resonate in a word nerd’s heart. I cannot control the nouns in my life, but with my eyes on the Loving One who is in control, I can live my life trustingly, hopefully, joyfully.