The priest was imprisoned by the Nazis in the concentration camp at Dachau. The numbers tattooed on his arm served as an ever-present reminder.
Now, 30 years later, he was working as a docent at the Dachau Memorial Site. He watched as the four of us — my high-school classmates and I — stood before a poem on the wall, painstakingly translating it from German to English.
We gladly accepted his offer of help. So began a wonderful conversation in which he told us what it had been like for him. Showed us the numbers on his arm. Brought to life things that for us, up to then, had merely been information in history books.
At one point I commented on the beauty of the German language — how the poem we were reading allowed a depth of expression that I didn’t think would be possible in English.
The priest smiled and said, “That’s funny. I see it the other way.” For him, English had much more potential for beauty, nuance, and expressiveness than his native German.
Another way to view the world
I thought of that encounter recently when I read Jacob Mikanowski’s thoughts on English becoming the world’s dominant language. Mikanowski, a native Polish speaker, complains that the pervasiveness of English is squeezing out other languages — and, with them, people’s ability to communicate their deepest thoughts to each other.
To me, family intimacies long to be expressed in Polish. So does anything concerning the seasons, forest products and catastrophic sorrows. Poetry naturally sounds better in Polish.
Yet for my classmates and me, and for the priest at Dachau, poetry sounded better in a language that wasn’t our own.
Here, I think, is why.
A language reflects a culture’s way of viewing the world. A single word might tie together two concepts that, in another language or even another dialect, would seem unrelated. Here’s an example: In British English, dear means both beloved and costly. We Americans know only the first meaning. But when you see the connection — dear meaning of great value — you gain a glimmer of insight into the way another culture views the world.
Sometimes it’s just a turn of phrase. In English, the proper response to thank you is you’re welcome, which means….I don’t know what it means. You’re welcome to what? I get uncomfortable thinking about it.
In Spanish, the proper response is de nada. It’s nothing. Ah! I’m comfortable with that.
While I lack the skill in any language, other than English, to express certain complex thoughts — like Mikanowski’s “catastrophic sorrows” — I love to discover the ways in which other languages make connections I haven’t seen before. That’s true even for languages I’m only fleetingly familiar with.
So I both agree and disagree with Mikanowski. I grieve with him when a civilization passes away and its language — its way of viewing the world — passes away with it.
At the same time, I don’t want to be trapped into thinking that my native culture — and my native language — offer the only right way, or even the best way, of viewing the world.
Every culture, every language, has something to contribute.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember that poem well enough to find it again. Nor do I know if it’s still on the wall where we encountered it. But I’ll never forget the flashes of insight that came as we peered through the eyes of another culture, and the kinship we felt with the German priest who reached across from his culture to see through the eyes of ours.
Photo Credit: By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons