Lost among translations

A constrained assumption of Greek identity prevailed in the East and the West throughout Hellenization: an almost pretentious adherence to everything Greek.

Romanizing the leading families in the distant and ethnically diverse provinces of the early Roman Empire likewise involved an idealization of romanitas, the Roman heritage. Some families served the military for generations, while others raised and were named as civil servants: Educated, prestigious men, serving the Emperors –some of whom were literally worshipped as Gods.

Our middle school books that taught the language of another Empire included a naive mistake: The Turkish word that referred generically to any government employee translated into English as civil servant: "My mother is a house-wife, my father is a civil servant." As we learnt British reciting where Mr. and Mrs. Brown went for their summer holiday, our fathers, the second- and third-generation civil servants of the young republic ... well, served. They strained to adopt new definitions of the socially acceptable and civilized; they valued the Modern, the City, the West.

Interestingly, one of the Turkish words that meant foreigner, originally Arabic and literally meaning outsider—as did barbaroi ages ago for anyone who was not Greek—used to have in those days a positive connotation: Ecnebi referred more to the Western neighbor presumed to be a polite city-dweller (to come from some polis).

Interestingly again, and ironically, the modern servants of the Republic, devoid of the freedom to simply talk about money, let alone any skill of trade, would be blamed a few decades later for being what somehow came to sound like a curse: Petty bourgeois.

Raised by two civil servants, strained for decades to learn, teach, behave and be a good citizen, I feel lost when I witness the police and the citizen literally fighting, or when I cannot help but hesitate to allow my son to walk with his fellows to the agora and shout a few slogans of their peripatetic philosophy --although they sound perfectly reasonable to me. Having tried hard for years to read write and speak the language of the Modern, the Imperial, the Outsider, I am amazed at how lost I am ... in translation.

Translation is flawed by definition, I come to think.


You must speak, shout, love, write,

what have you, in your mother tongue?