Lost in Translation

I’m visiting my parents in Northern California this week and they tell me it’s like Indian Heaven. Every block there’s another place selling unthinkably cheap and tasty Indian food and my mom tells me she hasn’t heard this many people speaking Telegu (her mother tongue) since she was growing up. In fact, she hears more Telegu going to the grocery store than her sister who actually lives in India. My aunt lives in a state where people primarily speak Tamil.

So we’re walking back to the car on the way home from one of these places, delicious Indian food in hand, and I tease my mother for trying to speak Hindi to the store clerk. She managed two words: “one more.” My mother doesn’t speak Hindi.

So we’re walking back to the car and my mother tells me that my grandmother used to have hour long conversations with a neighbor, in spite of the fact that they each spoke two different languages exclusively. My grandmother spoke Telegu and her neighbor spoke Hindi. They were friends for three years. Best friends, in fact.

You might think, “Oh how sweet. They were able to transcend language,” or “Oh they probably learned each other’s language in those three years.” No. No, no, no. This story is hysterical if you know my grandmother. No, if I know her at all, these friends started off speaking two different languages and ended speaking two different languages. My mother confirms this. Neither learned a new word. Or okay, maybe they learned two– but really just two. My grandmother doesn’t even speak the same language as people that do speak Telegu.


Oh this is easy. Pain.

My grandmother lost two children to jaundice when they were just babies, and lost another child aged 16 when he drowned after trying to teach himself how to swim in a well. And that’s just the obvious trauma. After being ignored for a lifetime, what do the words you speak matter?

We turn inwards with pain. My grandmother babbles, but she’s not alone in that. Radiating pain and fear, each of us becomes caught in our own little bubbles of misunderstanding and misperception, barely even interacting with each other, except to occasionally graze another’s bubble, experience a new searing pain, and retreat further into our individual worlds.

What a life.

Most of the time when two people have a conversation, there’s so little listening involved that they might as well be holding two separate yet simultaneous conversations. We might have more success being heard if we speak to the drywall in our apartment.

But it’s not all bad. Bearing this information in mind, we can throw out any expectations of being heard or understood and instead focus on offering that gift to others. And then in the moments when others are able to offer us even a sliver of compassion or understanding, we can appreciate the miracle that it actually is.


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