Friday, October 22, 2010

What is Really Lost in Translation

Dr. Salai
It is difficult for us, the American volunteers, to communicate with our artisans. Part of that difficulty is language--some of our women speak Burmese, the ones who could afford to go to town or to a school where they learned the national language. Some of them only speak their hill tribe dialect, Karen, Karenni, Kachin or Shan. So when our Burmese translator is there, we often need a second translator (usually a sister or friend) to translate into the hill tribe dialect. One of our weavers, Oo Meh, is hard of hearing. When Oo Meh is there, we will say something in English, Dr. Selai (our beloved Burmese translator) repeats it in Burmese, then Koe Meh shouts it into Karenni for her sisters, Oo Meh and Meh Mo. It's an awkward (and sometimes loud) way to communicate, but we laugh a lot about it.

We limp along in our many languages. But no language can prepare me to understand what happened to the women in Burma. When we ask the how they came over here, their answers are usually simple: "The army came to our village, we fled across the jungle, then we stayed in Thailand for 19 years." Or, "When the army came, we hid in the jungle. My father was killed by a landmine. My mother helped the rest of us cross the border." And I cannot fathom what that must be like.

Nothing in my privileged American framework gives me any understanding of the terrible indecision they describe, of not knowing whether they should run when a messenger comes (if one comes at all) saying the junta is not far behind. Because leaving doesn't just mean running for their lives, it means leaving behind everything they have ever known, the fields their families have worked for generations without end, the huts they built with their hands or their parents built, the hills that nurtured them and sustained their families. I cannot imagine watching my father killed by a landmine in the jungle.  I cannot think of fleeing with my own two daughters nto a jungle filled with landmines. I don't know the stench of death, I can't smell my village burning. I don't remember being parted from my husband and never seeing him again. Those are not things I can fathom.

That history is part of our artisans. Every time we hear a story, we peel back a layer of their past and learn more about who they are and what they've overcome. And now, the daily courage they have to face an uncertain future, bewildering bureaucracy, a country that moves too fast in too many directions, humbles me. We are motivated and blessed by the strong, courageous women they are. 


1 comment:

  1. I was just writing a post about getting to know the women through the language barrier. We've been hanging out too much, I guess! In looking through the bags, I realized we can tell so much about each women's personality through their work. More to come on these thoughts soon!