I’m a weird person. This used to bother me a lot in elementary school when I’d get picked on for not conforming to the crowd. In fact, I remember one of my favourite t-shirts in elementary school was a green t-shirt with the word “Non-conformist” proudly written on it. My classmates would pick on me for using “big words.” Apparently 3 to 4 syllables is remarkable for a 2nd grader, an accomplishment now overshadowed by words like “Nicene-Constantinopolitan” which I run into with relative frequency.
Being weird, I’ve wrestled for most of my life with striking a balance between being myself and being understood. Phonological changes in languages are often said to be triggered by tensions between Easy of Articulation (what’s easy to say) and Perceptual Clarity (what’s easy to hear). Analogously, I’ve long had on my mind the need to balance my effort to translate myself with others’ efforts to understand me.
And I mean more by ‘understand’ than just the words I use. If my main passion wasn’t language then there might be fewer obstacles, but we all want to be understood on a deeper level. We want our feelings – passions, fears, and hopes – to be understood, shared, and validated. We want shared experiences, shared memories, shared jokes, shared secrets, and shared worldviews. If not shared, at least understood.
But we inevitably encounter people who are different. We all have our turn being the weird one. Then an exchange happens. Both parties must make reciprocal efforts to make themselves understandable and to try to understand. Obviously we can be too lazy on the latter point but I also think we can do too much of the former.
When you constantly translate yourself into the socially acceptable vernacular you miss out on chances to teach people. Some of my favourite TV shows I discovered only because someone made an obscure reference in conversation that went over my head and needed to be explained. If no one had ever talked to me about Elbow Leaches, I never would have watched Avatar: The Last Airbender (best cartoon ever).
Any polyglot poetry-lover probably knows that so much is lost in translation. Translation always comes with compromise. You can accurately convey meaning but you lose identity. You lose character. Something of personality disappears and that can be as disappointing for the reader-in-translation as it is frustrating for the original poet.
I don’t want to always speak in the vernacular. Being able to is important, but I’ve spent far too much time trying to learn how to say “Did you see that ludicrous display last night” correctly. Confusion is beautiful. Confusion is to learning what tilled soil is to crops. I want to say confusing things like “Easy of Articulation,” “Perceptual Clarity,” and “Nicene-Constantinopolitan.”
I’ve decided I’m going to start confusing people again and I hope- I eagerly anticipate others doing the same.