The Economist’s language columnist Johnson writes about visiting a village in East Kivu, in the Congo:
The topics of discussion were — to put it lightly — sensitive. It’s difficult enough to talk about rape and murder in English. In a Bembe village, through a translator? I wanted to convey compassion and empathy. What use is mere intonation when my words are meaningless? When I have no control over how my language, or my intent, or my concern would come across because my words weren’t my own? I knew, of course, that I’d never be able to understand the pain of war. But any mere attempt to understand was filtered by an emotionless team of translators scarred, too, by Congo’s wars. What was meant to be a set of careful, sensitive English-to-Bembe interviews became Bembe-only conversations deadened by familiar stories of violence. My pole sana, “I’m very sorry,” was wildly inadequate for anyone or anything in the villages. I never felt so far removed from anyone as I did on those days.
Our trip showed the difficulty of doing the sort of research required to understand the consequences of far-flung wars. More specifically, it underscored the disheartening reality of working with populations who speak relatively unknown languages: without the money and time required to learn languages like Bembe, these stories will always be a world apart. The danger is in allowing that distance to discourage research. Babel fishes are pipe dreams, especially for highly localised languages like Bembe. A translator was necessary in those parts. I needed mine. I wish I hadn’t.
A very thought-provoking post in several ways, but I wonder: Would fluency in Bembe have helped? We are prone to believe that it’s possible, in the midst of tragedy, to find what we all-too-hopefully call “the right words.” But talk is always and inevitably cheap. In times of grief, almost any gesture is preferable to language, or so it seems to me. If your posture, or your touch, or the look on your face, or your mere presence do not suffice to convey your empathy, no words are likely to.