‘If good poetry is hard
then drink champagne.’

That’s one of the bits of poetry that I have constructed on the door of my refrigerator. Another one is:

‘I know
the deep secret
of god’

You see, I have a box of those magnetic words and can combine the words to express myself on the door of the fridge. So, while I wait for the coffee to brew, or the mandatory three minutes for my tea bag to steep, I can express myself. The problem is that my imagination, and creativity, is limited by the words that the manufacturer has provided me in that little plastic box. (And by the amount of patience I have in searching for the right word, but we shall set this aside for the moment.)

My friend Tom, the linguist, put it in a very profound manner. ‘Ideas depend largely on language,’ he said. Of course, he was not commenting on my magnetic poetry skills but on the importance of learning one’s language well. And how different languages have evolved differently, allowing different words to develop to express the ideas and emotions of the people of that language. Every high school text on social studies will tell you that the Innuit have 23 (or 32?) words to describe different kinds of snow. The Tamils have no need of that. But they have a distinct word for every kind of familial relationship (mother’s older brother is different from younger, and from the father’s brothers!)

If one understands the nuances of the language, one can express one’s thoughts and ideas better. The reader or listener should also be able to understand those subtleties of the language to grasp those nuances. Hence, sometimes, a joke is lost on non-native speakers of a language. And hence, again, the frequent comment of the learned who say that Homer’s Iliad should really be read in Greek.

Think about the one who is expressing the thought, and the availability of sufficient words to do so. If one goes through school studying subjects in a foreign language, one has to simultaneously learn the language while also learning the subject. That is fine, if it is math, perhaps. But if one is not very proficient in the language in which one is learning the subject, the ideas are truly lost in translation.

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