Lost in Translation: A Monolingual Girl in a Multilingual World

by Brooke Hardwick

My days begin watching a woman whittle ginger and end with a pair of mischievous twins waiting for the bus to China.

In between these bookends I cross paths with a long list of people. They, like me, are performing the rituals of their day. The only difference between us is that we don’t speak the same language.

Hong Kong is not known for its paucity of human interaction. Indeed, as one of the most crowded cities on Earth, human contact is an inescapable truth. But when you are a monolingual foreigner how can you derive meaning from these exchanges?

My Cantonese is nominal. In fact, it is a peppercorn bobbing in an ocean of dialogue.

The sensation of hearing but not understanding is different on different days.

On some days I feel as though I’m on a flight. I know that I’m on the right plane going to the correct destination but the engine has drowned out sound. Voices seem like the whispers of flight attendants I can’t decipher above the din.

On other days I feel like grass under tropical rain. I am pelted until saturation. Individual utterances are inundated and I am not able to detect the glossy membranes of meaning.

On darker days I feel like a deep-sea creature; mute and deaf. Schools of fish swarm and dart in synchronized unison above me. They bubble with chatter as I lurk under the weight of an ocean.

I’m not a proponent of ignorance or isolationism and I know that these sensations would dissolve were I to learn the language. But as both my profession and passions require the sole use of English and Cantonese is extremely difficult, I must find another way.

But how does one communicate if not with words?

Before I pass the woman who whittles ginger at dawn, I greet the night-manager of my high-rise building. She is at the end of her twelve-hour day and I at the beginning. Although our interactions are coloured with kindness they are brief and perfunctory.

One evening I stumbled upon the night-manager laughing with another resident. I yearned to know more about the woman who guarded the building as I slept. Interrupting, I asked what was bringing them such mirth. She paused momentarily and then turned to reveal images of her dressed in the costumes of Chinese Opera. In the photos she had transformed into an exquisite beauty. Her pride glistened.

The photos brought us closer. It was not the content, although breathtaking, it was the sharing of them.

The same can be said of the wordless relationship I have with my seamstress. She inhabits a minuscule room in the market-labyrinth across from my workplace. When I greet her with the garb that needs altering she gruffly shakes her head. This is the joke we share between us. It is a good-natured acknowledgement of the difficulty that we are about to encounter.

Without language, a seamstress may only know what she needs to know through touch. She tugs at my hips and drapes the garments against me. We nod and point, a measuring-tape filling the gaps. At last, when it appears that we both understand what is required, we turn to nod and point at the calendar; negotiating a date for completion.

Although initially begrudging, I’d like to think that my seamstress now holds some small affection for me. It is different now. I bring her ice-cream on collection days and she doesn’t let me leave without an embrace.

At the end of my day I leave the New Territories and make my way back to the island. My bus stop is directly next to the B3 to China. It is there that I encounter the twins. They are usually slurping ice cream their grandmother has given them as an after-school treat. Perhaps she does it to gain some control as they misbehave before their trip home to presumably stricter parents.

They, like many other children, travel from the mainland to school in Hong Kong every day. Their teeth are rotten; their smiles manic with sugar. They pick and point at me; a blue-eyed anomaly.

At some point in our interactions something changed. After so many days of their endearing naughtiness, my attempts to chat with them succeeded. Their grandmother flashed a smile that read something like relief. She prompted them to practice their English and we began informal lessons.

Now the twins stand like soldiers when my bus departs. They wave and smile, their ice-creams momentarily forgotten in the farewell.

I have learnt that a lot can be said without words and even though language is at the crux of my identity, it isn’t needed to communicate.

Indeed, a smile, an embrace or even the silent acknowledgement in a passing nod can bring more than a thousand words ever would.

For one must not focus on what is lost in translation but what, instead, is found.

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