Monthly Archives: August 2011

Lost in translation

This is not a story about how I shared an awkward kiss with Bill Murray on a crowded street in Tokyo. And no, I am not Scarlett Johansson. People say I’ve reminded them of everything from anime to Tina Fey, but that is not what brought you here. You’re bored. I can’t sleep. Welcome to 99.9% of blogdom.

I recently started a job that had me help 40 Chinese students fresh off the plane navigate a Georgia Walmart for sheets and toilet bowl cleaner. As my superpower is magnetism for the truly random, it was not the experience itself that made me do a double take on my own nametag but the realization that I am now professionally advising others to take risks with a foreign language. The irony of this cannot fully be appreciated without taking you back to my first class as an undergraduate in college.

In spite of a deep love for French that was instilled in me at an early age by Madame Murphy through Julia Child impersonations and cooking demonstrations, as well as games of Twister en français, my first language class as a college freshman was traumatizing. The room was small and my claustrophobia was only heightened by the fact that it was filled with conversation among six seniors and a professor who I was certain I would have caught talking about this hopeless(ly) American deer in highlights if I could have understood a single word they were saying.

Seconds after the class ended and I prayed for a contact high from the philosophy students I passed on my way to the Office of Academic Assistance, I traded in one semester of advanced French for two mandatory years of Latin. A dead language, I presumed, would not be able to fight me.


Within the week, my classics professor started calling me her “Little Latin Trap” because I would always give the wrong answer to her trickier questions and she liked to use my mistakes as examples for the rest of the class. Eventually, I just chose silence but the nickname stuck. It’s even printed on an unofficial certificate my peers awarded me at the end of my time in foreign language purgatory. Et tu, Jackasses? 😉

I was reminded of this personally challenging time because I caught myself encouraging my students to speak up this week in spite of the fear I knew they felt about messing up. I wish I had given myself that same grace… and not just as a freshman or in foreign language classes.

Ironically, I ended up reading this passage before bed about how we’ve all set our own little Latin trap through a shoddy translation and interpretation of the word “perfection.”

Kathleen Norris writes, “The good news about the word ‘perfect’ is that it is not a scary word, so much as a scary translation. The word that has been translated as ‘perfect’ does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or the perfectionism that would have me strive for it at any cost. It is taken from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’ To be perfect is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse.”

Now we’re talking.