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Lost in translation

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Last week, I had the joy of meeting up with an old friend domiciled in the United States. A professor of philosophy at an American university, he had come down to participate in a forum at the Galle Literary Festival, the glamorous shindig of the Sri Lankan literati. His busy schedule allowed only for all too short a meeting in Colombo, a chat, and a hurried meal. The rest of his stay was spent at the old Dutch Fort in the South, now turned into a touristy heritage site, exploring the wonders of the written word.

‘Lost in translation’, or the problems of translation; ideas and words of one language being explained through the words and ideas of another, was the topic his forum was to explore. What is perceived by one way of looking at things, looked at by different eyes, by way of a translation. One literature’s engagement with the human spirit and sensitivities; endeavour and failure, achievement and celebration, heroism and cowardice, human frailties, tragedy and other concerns of a particular people; explained in the language of another literature. An exact translation, in idiom and nuance, even in the hands of the most sensitive translator, is a challenging endeavour, if not impossible in the complete sense.

Obviously, problems arise not only in the translation of the written word, but even in the adoption of foreign institutions and concepts. Britain or the culture thereof, created a parliament, the office of the prime minister and various other political/legal institutions and systems, which were later adopted by her former colonies; but is the true meaning of these institutions and systems, lost in translation, ending only as a sorry parody? Things that gave cohesion and stability to a people, builders of a powerful and prosperous country with a global impact, ending as mere instruments of abuse and corruption in the inept hands of a people, of a very different timbre.

Driving to the restaurant, we had to stop at a pedestrian crossing. There was only a single pedestrian and he was by no means in a hurry to cross the road.

“This man is just sauntering across the wide road, as if he has all the time in the world and the road was made only for him! I hate to say this, but this is the kind of behaviour often observed among the coloured people in America, perhaps they don’t value their lives enough to make a quick and purposeful crossing. Why would such a person value your time?”

It is a well-observed fact that the people of the tropics have a slower gait than those of the occident. Still, an effort can be made to cross the road, used by thousands of others, quicker. We now have mechanised vehicles and sealed roads as our mode and method of transportation, an advancement which gives rapid mobility to thousands of commuters and vehicles at the same time. The system works best with a certain road culture, based on civil and disciplined conduct. New developments allow us to travel with dignity and in a certain style, unlike a stampeded herd of cattle. On our roads, we observe a different way of thinking, oblivious to the complexity of the network and its many stakeholders, treating the road as if it was built only for that one person to travel. Even at a pedestrian crossing, the right to cross can be over claimed; negating the purpose of the road.

A persons’ importance (or even value) is measured by our society from the degree of autonomy he enjoys on the road; the extent to which the man may ignore the rules that apply. How can someone be an important person, if he has to follow the rules like everybody else? The more laws a person can disregard, the more important he surely is!

Most times, the traffic laws are broken by the high and mighty with an officer of the law (on a motorcycle or a high powered cab) leading the way as a pilot, waving other road users off the road. It seems that the idea of elected or delegated power is lost in translation in the native mind, moulded only on the realities of hereditary and absolute power. Sure, VIP travel may well happen in other countries, in the UK, in Singapore and so on; but the grasp of the road culture in these countries is manifest in the infrequency and the limitation of such disruptions, the restrained manner and the responsibility shown by those concerned. Monopolising the road is not a right, but only a privilege to be enjoyed occasionally and discreetly.

By no means is the failure to understand the importance of road civility limited to those in positions of power. Often it is the lowly; the three-wheeler, the motorcyclist, the bus driver who manifest the most damnable selfishness and indiscipline. Perhaps the minions are tempted to do sneakily, what the rulers do openly.They will cut across on-coming traffic, overtake on the wrong side, honk rudely and park anywhere and everywhere to achieve their ends: small victories, in a life of stress, hardship, and defeat.

Similarly, there appears to be an inevitable loss of meaning when public office (whether it be the presidency, premiership, or even an elected people’s representative) originally developed in an alien culture, are adopted by a civilisation with an entirely different evolution and mental makeup. What is the purpose of such an office? Is it an opportunity for a person with leadership qualities and the requisite skills, to serve society, or is the purpose understood (misunderstood) in countries like ours, to be something else altogether?

In England, we have not, to my knowledge, had close family members succeeding each other to high positions such as the office of the Prime Minister. If at all, it will be a rare exception, an occurrence that will only prove the rule. There are many cases of Prime Ministers resigning on a technical loss of confidence, Cameron being a recent case in point (“the will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered” – Cameron on resigning after the Brexit referendum).

Despite London being a major financial hub, with billions of pounds changing hands on a daily basis, cases of systematic and deliberate fraud are mercifully few among legislators. By and large, England’s institutions: the parliament, judicial system, and the bureaucracy, have preserved their good name. For a relatively small country, it has done very well; without one single document to be called a constitution, Churchill facing a fearsome World War with only a very small bodyguard, an unarmed constabulary whose authority rests on the law and not a gun, ministers and MPs who regularly ride to work by train; obviously, a very different outlook.

In the translating (or adoption) of these institutions, or understanding their meaning through the eyes of another culture, gross mutilations are caused to the idea of public office. A “leader” in our society is a man born with the correct configuration of stars, to a family of “leadership”, merely claiming what merits he had earned in previous births. There is nothing wrong, therefore, in a public life being a lifetime occupation. It does not stop there. His family is also entitled to all the comforts; bungalows, cars, several body guards, foreign travel, that this cash-strapped country can provide and finally, what harm is there in bringing in his son or a family member to succeed him. After all, in this culture, leadership is explained through family genes.

Sadly, despite all the medical attention received at plush hospitals in the West or Singapore – all paid for by the people, this man too is mortal, and one day will depart from this life form. Most likely, especially if his children are now leaders, an impressive memorial will be built for him by a grateful people, with their own money.

My friend was jetlagged and tired after his long flight. He thought a warm soup will relax him and help him to sleep later. The broth came after about twenty minutes, unappealing and cold; obviously not the creation of a man evolved in the particular culinary tradition.

“Why is this soup not warm?” my friend inquired.

The waiter had a look of incomprehension; why is he complaining, even after getting his soup?

“That is how we serve it here, sir” he said confusedly.

Something lost in translation?

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