I know a guy who is colorblind. He doesn’t see the world in black and white like dogs and Jazz Age movie stars, but the colors he sees are “a bit random” and he has trouble naming them. I discovered this a while ago at the train station while waiting with him for someone who was giving him a ride to an event several hours away.
“They said they’re coming in a burgundy sedan,” he explained miserably. “Burgundy! I can’t tell what color anything is, and they send me something in burgundy.” He muttered apologies and imprecations under his breath as I named the color of each car that went by, secretly worrying that I wouldn’t recognize the exact shade of burgundy either.
When I was a kid I had a revelation that disturbed me for days. Theoretically, every single person on earth could perceive the color spectrum in different ways, and we would never know. What I saw as blue might have looked like my red to someone else, my purple could have been another’s green and someone else’s orange.
Maybe my mother saw the world in complete inverse from how I did. Maybe my cat’s fur was really chartreuse—but then, how can we say what counts as real, if color only exists in the perceptions, the brains—the words—of those with the eyes that see it?
And words, I realized, were useless in this case. Even describing colors by relating them to real-world examples would get us nowhere. Red is a warm color, because it’s the color of blood and flesh and fire—well, if inside your head “red” is what I would see as “blue,” your blood and flesh and fire are the color of my sky and sea and ice, and neither of us is the wiser. We all use the same words to describe them.
We understand things once we name them. If I have a headache, type “headache” into WebMD and discover that I definitely have pregnancy cancer, it’s only about five minutes before I start feeling my cells dividing uncontrollably—and something definitely just kicked inside my belly. Or I’ll be on my shrink’s couch, fruitlessly trying to define an emotion I’m experiencing, unable to understand how exactly I feel until I give it a name.
Milan Kundera once introduced me to an entire emotion. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a character experiences litost.
I like to imagine the back and forth between Kundera and his increasingly exasperated translator:
Kundera shakes his head. “No, no, it’s sharper than that. More bitter.”
The Translator furrows her brow. “Desperation?”
“That’s too dramatic. It has a terribly pathetic and undignified undertone.”
“Not specific enough.” Kundera lights a cigarette. “And too German.”
The Translator throws up her hands. “Milan, then for the love of Saint Wenceslas and Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk, what the hell does ‘litost’ mean?”
Kundera leans back slowly in his chair. He puts his feet up on the desk, takes a long drag on his cigarette. Ashes fall on the manuscript, and rain beats against the windows. “It’s a state of existential torment brought on by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.”
The Translator stares at him. “I’m…just going to leave that in Czech.”
The hardwood door slams behind the Translator with all the weight of tragic poetry. She walks alone down the steps of Kundera’s building and heads towards home. It’s raining, but she’s in such a foul mood that instead of opening her umbrella she throws it savagely onto the sidewalk and leaves it there, abandoned and useless. Useless, just like me, she thinks. What a stupid job, translating. No one will ever read this book anyway and if they do, it’s Milan’s work, not mine.
Prague looms around her in the fog and rain, tall black spires and silhouetted brooding castles. The Grand March of History is trudging past to a melancholy funeral dirge, the stone saints look helplessly up to the sky and stretch out their hands to beg forgiveness for their imperfection. It’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and unbearably sad, and Kundera could have described it perfectly but the Translator is suddenly, piercingly aware that she couldn’t have. She’s second fiddle. A background actor. A janitor. Her fundamental artistic secondariness and her inability to bring words to the wordless ex nihilo stops her in her tracks and she’s overcome with the prickling heat of furious humiliation, made all the more hateful by the fact that she’s humiliated in front of no one at all but herself. Drenched in rain, she storms across the Charles Bridge and spends the next twenty minutes angrily kicking a single cobblestone loose till her toes ache and the futility of translation is revealed. And she realizes that if she were to define “litost” in another language but Czech, she would need to spend three paragraphs describing it.
Recently, a scientist tried to program a robot to name paint colors. I don’t know what exhausting weekend helping her mother choose among seventeen elaborately-named shades of beige for her living room inspired it, but the results went viral.
The robot, using a “neural” computer network to think, quietly observed the English language for multiple iterations of a set of source material, learning what combinations of letters often go together to make words. (Its first attempt was a litany of a drunkard’s moans: “caae brae, caae blae.”) After a while, things got ridiculous.
“Ghasty Pink.” “Hurky White.” “Ronching Blue.” The robot had taken it upon himself to become a futurist poet, and invented new words to describe particular shades. “Stanky Bean” and “Turdly” also made appearances, as did “Dope,” “Flower” and “Sink.” After I caught my breath from laughing harder than I had in months and forwarding the article to forty-seven people, I stopped to look at the colors. And damn it, the robot was right.
Stoomy Brown was both stormy and gloomy, Ronching Blue was the color of a crumpled—ronched, even—piece of upholstery and Sink looked like a sink. Badly in need of scrubbing.
The Russian language has two words for blue, one for a dark shade and one for light. The result is that Russian-speaking people perceive them as two separate and distinct colors altogether. If a language made no distinction between blue and purple, we anglophones might be exasperated. How many more shades of the sky exist in the meta-reality beyond our words?
How many words do we have for love, or humiliation? If we know the word litost, does it expand our capacity for empathy or only make us sprout a new nerve capable of feeling a distinct new kind of pain? Does the Arctic natives’ forty-five-word vocabulary for snow give them any advantage when it’s time to dig out the igloo?
Umberto Eco wrote a wonderful book based on a series of lectures he gave in Bologna in the 1990s on the art and craft of translation. The fundamental question he poses: is translation possible?
In Italian the title is brilliant: Dire quasi la stessa cosa, or Saying Almost the Same Thing. In English it was published simply as Experiences in Translation, proving his point from the outset. Equivalence in meaning is simple enough—one can get the general concept of it’s raining or I’m unhappy or I hate being alone across in any number of languages without much difficulty. But try to truly reproduce Il pleure dans mon coeur comme il pleut sur la ville in any language other than Verlaine’s French and see what aimless doggerel results.
The imperfection that lurks at the heart of every translation is the same one that throws up an impenetrable wall between two people even as they look each other in the eye. Cast out of paradise, the people of the Word stumble through the ruins of Babel, stuttering and stammering. The Word starts to die as soon as it passes from the mind or heart to the lips, is given form and flesh, sent forth into the light as a fragile little newborn thing. Heard, understood, misunderstood, the eyes widen, the next move is either a kiss or a slap in the face. The fabric of the universe is threadbare, missing a piece, out of joint: entropy, the decay of all things, is the first fundamental law of the cosmos.
And in practical terms, the end result of all this is that after a recent project translating a work of fiction, my Google search history now forever includes “synonyms for hang glider” and “sexier word for lick.”
How many languages does it take to communicate with and truly understand one human being? How many names for colors do we have to invent before I can know we see the same sky?
by Mara Gerety
Mara Gerety is a writer, translator and musician currently living in New York City, where she is probably stuck on a stalled subway train right now reading either an unsettling Eastern European experimental novel or an Italian murder mystery. She earned a Master of Music degree in classical violin from Mannes Conservatory in 2014 and continues to perform across the NYC area, primarily in folk music or alternative settings, while broadening her creative activities into the literary and linguistic fields.