Lost in Translation

Yesterday I began talking about my trip this to Cherokee, North Carolina. It began in various forms more than a week ago and was influenced in many ways by events I had at first thought completely unrelated. When the trip began, we were all still just starting to get to know each other–and that’s where I’d like to pick up today.

We rode in two vans from N.C. State to the mountains. We talked a little bit on the outset, but then most of us dozed off and on for the rest of the trip. It was easy for me to want to sleep, since I hadn’t slept the night before in preparation. It was not so comfortable to sleep, however, given my position in the van.

Somehow I managed. When I shut my eyes, it was about 6:40. When I opened my eyes, it was closer to eight.

We talked more in the car. I don’t really remember all the things that came up–we were, after all, still getting to know each other, and intermingled with fits of silent slumber, what came between was as dreamlike as what transpired in the dark. At one point we did stop at a Dollar General to pick up some more socks. I remember because the girls found wildly colorful socks on sale for wildly low prices, and one of our trip leaders found a can of “beans and wieners” in an on-sale bin. We didn’t even touch that.

Even during lunch with the chief, we were still getting to know each other. What was amazing on top of everything else was that a small number of those attending were international students. I’ve met a number since coming to N.C. State–from Germany, from France, and now from Brazil, Denmark, Turkey, and Spain–and I’ve learned that communication can be a small challenge, at least until you get accustomed to their accents. Then it’s not a problem anymore, although sometimes there are those words that just don’t translate easily. It was the same when I was in Israel a few years ago. It’s actually quite amazing–for a number of reasons.

First is that I’m always awed by the fact that many of the international students I’ve met speak English at least as well as half of the native English speakers I’ve met–and still, very few of them actually think they speak English well (I wonder how many of them believe me when I tell them their English is fine, and then how many just think I’m being polite). I wish I could speak a second–sometimes even a third or fourth–language with the same proficiency with which they speak English. I’m envious they’ve had the opportunity to learn multiple languages. Being homeschooled, my language requirements were not as strict as in public schools, yet even in public schools in the US, one rarely gains lasting fluency in a second language.

So when it’s hard to understand each other at first, I’m not deterred–I’m encouraged to try harder. I remember what it felt like trying to speak Hebrew when I was in Israel, and I have no small amount of respect for others who come to the US speaking other languages and then connect to us in English. It’s a great show of courage, knowledge, and determination. I truly admire each of them.

Second is there’s no shortage of things to learn from other people–especially people with backgrounds very different from our own. This is true of people from different parts of the US, even different parts of North Carolina, and even from different parts of the same city–but when we’re each from different countries, the amount of things you can discover on a global scale is simply outstanding and inspiring–and it makes me want to travel even more.

The second night of our trip, a few of us gathered in one of the bedrooms, and amid a conversation as varied as hot dogs and abortion, we had a lengthy discussion about being LGBT–about the rights in the US, about strange encounters we’ve had, about identity and cultural norms, and even how in Europe, being gay is nothing. (As an aside, in Germany, I have been told being bisexual is not as greatly accepted as being gay, but that just shows us there’s room for progress everywhere.) It left my mouth hanging open that in Spain, for example, seeing two guys walking together, even kissing, on the streets is no big deal. It made me a little envious that things are so different in the US, especially in the South, but it made me hopeful that someday we could be so accepting of our differences, and also so comfortable with individuals’ norms as opposed to individual norms.

I have a feeling I’m losing sight of what I intended to write about, so I won’t go on much more about the languages that had distanced us slightly, because within those first few hours on that first day, those boundaries fell away. A couple times over the next two days I helped explain a couple idioms or uncommon words, but by that point, we’d all gained an understanding of each other and an appreciation of our language differences. Friday night, in a late-night snack run, a few of us even began sharing various words in other languages, and in a way, that helped bring us all even closer as well.

So after our incredible lunch with the chief, our next stop was the Kituwah Academy–the Cherokee Language Immersion School. On the itinerary, when I saw “language immersion,” I thought we were going to have an hour or so of learning how to speak Cherokee–like a flash course in Spanish or something like that.

I was mistaken.

But it was even better than that.

When we got to the school, we were led to a seminar room where we gathered around tables and our hostess began telling us about the Cherokee language–and gave each of us a beautiful poster of the Cherokee Syllabary. I had never heard of a syllabary before, but it’s similar to an alphabet, except instead of a consonant or vowel, each character represents an entire syllable–hence the name, a syllabary. The Cherokee Syllabary was developed by a man named Sequoyah and officially adopted in 1825. What’s most amazing about his story is that he himself was illiterate when he came up with the syllabary, and he had to restart it multiple times! (At one point, his wife was so frustrated by his obsession to developing it that she burned it all–but he still didn’t give up.)

Learning it isn’t easy: As opposed to our 26-letter English alphabet, the Cherokee Syllabary has 85 characters!

That’s where the Kituwah Academy comes in. Starting with children as young as six months old, they have developed programs of complete immersion to help preserve their language and increase the number of fluent Cherokee speakers, a number continuing to dwindle as the years go on. I wish I could capture all of the urgency and heart our presenter shared with us, but there is no way I could even hope to emulate her words or the kindness and enthusiasm with which she spoke them. Listening to her stories about Cherokee and how keeping their language alive will keep their culture alive, I couldn’t help but think of my own connection to Hebrew.

I don’t speak very much Hebrew, but I do know a few words, and I do intend to learn more someday. However, I had never really considered the cultural implications of learning Hebrew: In many ways, it does keep the Torah alive in its original form; it does bring prayers and passages closer to me personally because I can relate to them in a more-intimate manner. Losing this relationship would be a great loss not only to myself, but also to all of Judaism.

I wasn’t the only one personally affected by this trip: That night, in reflecting on the day’s events, some of the international students with us expressed the same concerns for their own native languages.

I don’t think we often pay attention to what words we use when we say something–yes, we watch what we say and we watch how we say it, but I think we often forget that language developed over many thousands of years and it wasn’t always what it is today–and in other parts of the world, language is completely different, too.

It would be hard for any of us to imagine what would happen if someone suddenly came in and told us we could no longer speak English–and then punish us severely if we tried to. We would lose our great classics of literature. We would lose decades of music. We would lose our textbooks and documentaries, our television shows and newspapers. We would lose everything that defines us and everything that comprises the culture we live in today.

That’s what happened to the Cherokee and many other Native American tribes at the hands of European settlers and US statesmen.

Hopefully, the Kituwah Academy will be able to reverse this loss and help preserve this culture that should never be lost. Yes, civilizations rise and fall and cultures collapse over time–but if this should happen, it shouldn’t happen on account of being forced from your land, forced from your culture, and forced from your language.

With the small glimpse we had of the school, I have no doubt this immersion program will begin to turn the tide of history in their favor again. If nothing else, the love and care they show these children is nothing shy of inspiring, and the fact they are this committed and enthusiastic about helping this language flourish and grow speaks volumes about the impact they can and will have upon the future of Cherokee culture.

It’s hard to think I could have said all of this from a few small events–but as a writer, I have a strong love of language, and being brought closer to a language I had never even heard before, and to be brought closer to it in such an eye-opening manner as this, it’s no surprise I was as deeply affected as I am.

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