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  • Andre Lamartin

Lost in Translation

Whoever said that there are many benefits to speaking multiple languages, vastly underestimated the downside of being misunderstood. Ever since I began writing in my journal, I made a conscious decision to do so in English and not in Portuguese, my native language. I also strayed from topics of local political relevance to maintain a positive tone, trying to escape from the darkness that surrounded me. This meant that my friends in Brazil had trouble understanding most of what I wrote and relating to it in any meaningful way. Being asked to switch to Portuguese, I did so only on occasion. This was not an act of selfishness; it was an act of self-preservation. Please allow me to explain why.

I refrained from using my native language as a form of self-imposed exile. Feeling wronged and abandoned by my country of current residence, I retaliated by abandoning my native language. Powerless to change a reality that I abhorred with all my being, I sought asylum in the English language. To understand the protection it afforded me, you must understand the reality from which I was fleeing.

I was born and raised in Brazil, despite being educated in American schools most of my life. There are many benefits to living in Brazil, but describing them now is beyond the scope of what I set out to accomplish, so I will concentrate solely on the dark side of paradise. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, having done so only in 1888. Consequently, it has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world. The World Bank has a statistical measure of inequality called the Gini Coefficient, which varies from 0 to 1. The higher the Gini Coefficient the more unequal the distribution of income and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, South Africa has the worst Gini Coefficient in the world, but Brazil does not stand so far behind.

Brazil´s historic inability to address the issue of social inequality has had long-lasting implications of the worst kind. The country now has one of the worst education systems in the world. Every year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) administers the PISA Test (The Programme for International Student Assessment), an international survey that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In the latest international assessment I came across, Brazil ranked 63rd in science, 59th in reading and 66th in mathematics, out of 70 countries tested. I personally believe that standardized tests only standardize human beings, but there are more pressing issues to address. In short, Brazil is a top ten-world economy with one of the most unequal distributions of income and one of the worst education systems on the planet. Consider the implications of this reality.

A country that devalues education, devalues democracy. Citizens are not born; they are educated. This is precisely the reason why the Brazilian ruling political elite has never had an interest in prioritizing education. To educate a human being is to liberate his mind from the shackles of ignorance, allowing him to see a creative, critical, free thinker whenever he looks in the mirror. Such a person would not vote for his oppressor for he would truly understand his plight. Such a person would not be a slave; he or she would be free. Free to understand, free to dream, free to believe. In the absence of education, no nation can call itself free, no society can deem itself meritocratic. If the people are allowed a voice, but only ignorance is allowed to speak, only the very worse will rise to the top. Is this democracy?

Consequently, when the desire for a better life cannot be channeled through the education system, it degenerates into violence. Brazil prides itself in maintaining peaceful relations with all of its 10 neighboring countries for approximately 150 years. However, Brazil is the most violent country in the world in absolute terms. Approximately 60,000 people are murdered annually, though I suspect the real number is considerably higher. Brazilian violence is not externalized towards other countries; it is internalized towards its own people. This is an undeclared, insidious civil war.

Anyone who has experienced or studied war understands that violence and rage are inextricably related. Therefore, internalized violence is internalized rage, which is one of the symptoms of depression. A country that kills its own people hates itself. The stereotypical view of Brazilian joy gives way to a more ominous reality, one of a depressed country, not only in economic terms. Political propaganda will tell you otherwise, but it only serves the interests of the powerful, never the powerless. All of this is but a spec of what I could say on the iniquities of Brazilian reality. What I have done to change it will be addressed on a different occasion, if ever. It cost me more than I can bear to express and it would infringe the privacy of others.

Unable to change what I cannot accept, I sought refuge in the English language, both in search of a more welcoming home and a different perspective on life. After all, a writer´s home is his language. Wherever he might find himself in this world, so long as he can write in his language of choice, he will always be sheltered from the elements, if not from the derision of others. Even if misunderstood, he will never be truly homeless, despite forcefully living in seclusion at times. Finding your voice and using it, does not mean that you will be heard, much less understood. But it does mean that you can embark on this journey of self-discovery called life accompanied by the language of your choice, which colors the scenery in a special way.

Based on my personal experience, I believe that language affects one´s cognitive ability and worldview, even influencing one´s personality in subtle ways. This has also been the shared life experience of many of my multilingual friends. In linguistics, there is a theory called linguistic relativity or Whorfianism that states as much. It remains deeply controversial largely out of political correctness, which I can understand, if not validate.

If we perceive the world in terms of language, it would seem logical that language would directly affect cognition to a significant degree. The very existence of Chomsky’s universal grammar attests to the importance of language. Chomsky believes that the syntactic structural rules of language are innate to human beings and entirely independent of sensory experience. This is just a convoluted way of saying that language is innate. When we speak or write, we are simply exercising a primeval ability innately infused into our brains, empowering us to express ourselves, communicate with others and understand life. Always standing for what we believe. But in some quarters, extolling the application of linguistic relativity, much less the use of the English language is a thoughtcrime.

Despite the fall of the Berlin wall, the Marxist Thought Police still remains on patrol in these lands and would certainly object to my use of linguistic relativity and the English language. Their description of me would be as succinct and harsh as equally obtuse. They would state that I am a finished byproduct of American and British Imperialism, in accordance with Gramsci´s theory of cultural hegemony. In crude terms, cultural hegemony states that a ruling elite uses culture to dominate other more diverse societies in an attempt to impose their worldview, beliefs, values and mores to perpetuate an unjust status quo.

If there is any application to cultural hegemony, I am not its practitioner. Within national boundaries, the Brazilian ruling elite has actively promoted a hegemonic form of cultural domination, but one based on soccer, Carnival and monthly festivities, not on the adoption of the English language. The goal is to alienate the masses while the state imposes the second highest tax burden in the Americas in exchange for pitiful public services, the perpetuation of extreme social inequality, illusory political representation and rampant corruption. Historically, the very construct of the Brazilian identity has not been associated with merit, education, social justice, liberty, political enfranchisement, or freedom. After eight different constitutions over the last 200 years, all of the above remains a fiction, when it should already be a fact. Despite my personal faults, I am not the alienated one.

One should also remember that Brazilian society is incredibly diverse. It is the amalgamation of various cultures not only from Europe, Africa and local indigenous peoples, but from all over the world. For instance, no other country has more descendants of Japanese immigrants than Brazil. If a Brazilian of Japanese descent eschews samba, carnival and soccer in favor of the cultural heritage of his family, is he less Brazilian for it? In a culturally diverse country, imposing a universal concept of national identity that does not take into account all the diverse elements of its own society is cultural totalitarianism. This Marxists know well.

Gramsci should redirect his ire towards the ruling Brazilian political class, not me. I side with linguistics because I believe that language directly affects cognition and is a determining factor in our very perception of life, leading me back to my original question. Why do writers abandon their native language? Fascinating questions rarely have simple answers, thus excusing my prolixity. Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad all gave differing answers. Setting aside the mask of generality, this is a question that I can only answer in the first person.

Unable to change what I cannot accept, I sought refuge in the English language. I did so in search of a more welcoming home and a different perspective on life. Despite the isolation this implied, a life in exile is preferable to death by assimilation, lest I wake up one day only to find out that in trying to sell myself, I had no self left for me. The search for a place to call home and a better life is a universal longing, but one that has come at a steep price. My four loves in this country are the Portuguese language, the ocean, my family and friends, most of whom can no longer understand me. Whoever said that there are many benefits to speaking multiple languages, vastly underestimated the downside of being misunderstood.

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