The well-meaning laughs of Iraqis I met when, unknowingly, instead of asking “Do you speak English?”, I was instead asking in my halting guide-book style Arabic, “Do I speak English?”
The howling laughter of a team mate in the Kurdish north when, rehearsing what I would say to a rude gentleman, in my best Kurdish, I demanded to know, “What is my name?”
Pronouns in other languages defeat me. They’re mostly so much more logical and sensible and economical than English, with a different word for the plural ‘you’ and word endings to indicate the proper pronoun.
But sensible, logical and economical just do not translate in my brain into anything I can make sense of. When it comes to language, I am the proverbial wanderer in the desert and the only thing that saves me from utter humiliation is my cheerful recognition before I even begin that I’m likely to get it wrong and that my listeners are likely to be very forgiving of my limitations.
And that is a wonderful space in which to be, desert or no desert: the space of forgiving acceptance of limitation. Knowing that I rest safely in such hands, being lost in translation isn’t such a bad thing. It teaches me compassion for others by the compassion shown me. It redirects me away from judging and towards grace by the grace extended to me. It creates patience in me by being on the receiving end of so very much patience from others.
And perhaps most important of all, it teaches me humility: the humility of the guest in a foreign land, relying, ever and always, upon the kindness of strangers. After all, aren’t we all strangers in one way or another in this pilgrim land?