Guest Column: Get lost in translation


Philosophy Instructor

Immersing yourself in a culture and language versus simply studying one provides countless benefits.

For example, to say the languages I learned in an academic setting — French, German and Spanish — did not result in fluency would be an understatement.

On the other hand, I learned three other languages in their natural setting, and I did a bit better. They were Greek, Finnish and Chinese, respectively. Nonetheless, I must confess that my proficiency in each of these languages leaves much to be desired.

I first studied Greek in college and graduate school, but it was New Testament Greek, which is markedly different than today’s Greek. I then traveled to the island of Crete, planning to spend the summer writing a book on the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.

I soon made a discovery. Many words have indeed changed since the olden days. The folks on Crete were puzzled by my knowledge of ancient words that are no longer part of their everyday vocabulary. For instance, I asked for “oinos,” the ancient word for wine, rather than using the modern word “krasi.”

Right away, I found that my vocabulary was way too thin. I wanted to buy some bread at the store but did not know the word for it. What I had had at the café was dry and very hard – you were to dip it in olive oil. So, I asked for “petra psomi,” or literally “rock bread.” This got a laugh, but the man knew just what I had meant.

My book on Kazantzakis never really got written, largely because I was having so much fun exploring the Cretan countryside and getting to know my neighbors, many of whom have remained good friends over the years.

Years later I married a Finnish woman, Mari, so I traveled to Finland to meet the family. We have returned to Finland, or “Suomi,” many times over the past 30 years. The Finnish language is different from any others, even from Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. I did practice certain phrases and could put together simple sentences.

In Finland, I ran a basketball camp every summer, so I had to learn a number of basic terms to give instructions. The little kids seemed to enjoy my broken Finnish, and I enjoyed practicing on them. The high-schoolers laughed a lot at my translation efforts, but they, too, enjoyed speaking English and learning basketball.

A peculiar and humorous thing is that in order to make their English more “cosmopolitan,” the Finns often incorporate American words into their vocabulary by simply adding an “i” to the end of a word. Thus “hot dog” becomes “hot dogi,” “grill” becomes “grilli” and “New York” becomes “New Yorkki.” I not only found this humorous but useful. Whenever I got stuck for a word, I could just add an “i” on the end of my English word. Obviously, this did not always work, but it was usually good for a few laughs.

In 2006, I was asked to teach English writing at a university in China, and I jumped at the chance. I knew nothing about how to speak, read or write Chinese, so this was a real challenge. Fortunately, my students already knew a great deal of English, having been studying it since the first grade.

Mari and I studied Chinese before we went. The Chinese government long ago devised a Western way of writing their sounds called “pinyin.” This fact turned out to be necessary because the Chinese characters themselves are all complex, with curved lines and dots inside what looks like hieroglyphics.

Sometimes, when in a pinch, we could fall back on “body language” for communicating. Once, when I was looking for the elevator, I acted out pressing the elevator button and slowly crouching down. The stranger took me directly to the elevator.

I was glad to learn that all my students had long ago taken English names for themselves, although some of them were surprising. One fellow called himself “Go Stop,” another “Michael Jordan” and another was known as “Sky.” Some of the girls had taken names like “Sugar” and “Sweetie,” but most had taken names like “Rosemary,” “Judy” and “Felicia.”

In spite of the fact that I am really no good with foreign languages, I did have a wonderful time trying to immerse myself in three special ones. Moreover, I am “lost in translation,” or perhaps better, “caught in translation,” when trying to speak them in their home countries. But that’s the fun of it.

Jerry H. Gill is a philosophy instructor at Pima Community College. If you’re a Pima student or faculty member, and you have a story to share, The Aztec Press would like to hear it. Email your inquiries or stories to  

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