Monday, November 7, 2011

Lost in Translation

When I first heard I was going to Samoa, one of my friends told me about a friend he knew who spent two years in Samoa, but had a hard time learning the language because everybody spoke English. I thought That won’t happen to me, I’ll try harder than that. Well, I’ve been trying for a year, and I have just about a year left, and it doesn’t look like I’m going to be fluent in Samoan by the time I leave here.

I often wonder what I sound like to the people in my village, and especially to the students at my school. I’m not as worried about making a fool out of myself in front of my students because I figure it helps them make mistakes when they try speaking English if they see that their teacher makes mistakes when I try speaking Samoan. My students are also very helpful teachers. They correct me when I’m wrong and they know what I’m trying to say, and when I talk to them outside of school, they know to speak slowly, enunciate, and limit their vocabulary. But Samoan still seems like a funny and often tricky language. In a way, it’s simpler and easier than English. The alphabet is smaller, you pluralize the verb instead of the noun(savali means to walk, savalivali means to go for a walk, savavali means two or more people walking) , all verbs change to past tense the same way, you can change a verb into a noun by adding –ga at the end, or you can change a noun into a verb by adding fa’a- at the beginning, etc. etc. The hard part is that so many words have way too many meanings. For example, fiafia roughly translates to “like,” as in I like that. It also means happy, excited (and exciting), party, and anything else roughly related to those words. Uila means electricity, bycicle, and lightning. Fai is your generic doing verb. Fai se kuka – make the food. Fai sau ofu – change your clothes/put on your clothes. Fai se mea’aoga – do the homework. If I don’t know the verb I’m looking for, I just use fai and I usually get my point across. All these different meanings mean that I’m never completely sure of what I’m saying, or what people are asking me, but I have a rough idea of the conversation.

Another tricky part is that where you place the emphasis changes the word. Moli with the emphasis on the first syllable (MOH-lee) means orange, both the fruit and the color. Moli with the emphasis on both syllables (MOH-LEE) means light. I always wonder what words in English sound similar but have completely different meanings and how I would respond if somebody asked me if I wanted to eat a light.

I was headed downtown with a few other PCVs in a taxi a week or two ago, and I told the taxi driver where we wanted to go – we were making multiple stops. One of the girls in the car told me “Now that Sarah is gone [the girl in our group who ET-ed – early termination], you probably have the best Samoan in our group.” I wouldn’t agree with this completely, but I would say I’m definitely in the top 5, maybe even in the top 3. However, I still feel incredibly limited in my language. I can have conversations with people because I know how to talk about my family, my work, where I’m from, what I do, and things like that. But anything more complicated than that is completely outside my abilities. Still, it’s nice to know that I can at least talk to people. Some of the PCVs swear they only know how to say hello and good-bye, but I think they’re exaggerating.  I can teach an entire class in Samoan using variations of a few stock phrases

Nofo i luga o le fala – sit on the mats (as opposed to sitting at their desks – students seem to pay less attention when they sit at their desks)
O le a le…(faiupu/upu/mea/mataupu/fesili/tali) ­– start of a question – what is the (sentence/word/thing/subject/question/answer. I like that one – sometimes I tell my students they have to write only the answer instead of both the question and the answer, so whenever they double check, they always ask me Tusi na’o oe? – Write only you? Because my name is Tali, get it?)
Tusi i lou api – write in your notebook

Of course you need more words than that to give an entire lesson, but once you get the basics, you don’t need much more.

There are times when I feel my language abilities are frustratingly inadequate though. I was trying to explain to my neighbors the other night about carving a pumpkin on Halloween. Ave se maukeni. O se mea lae totonu, tu fafo. Fai se ata i luga o le maukeni. Take a pumpkin. The stuff inside, put outside. Make a picture on the pumpkin. I think that one got lost in translation. Another example, I asked one of the kids across the street o le a o le upu mo le sky? What’s the word for sky? She shrugged at me, so I tried to explain. O le mea, e masani lanu moana i le aso, ma pogisa ma fetu i le po. The thing that is usually blue in the day, and dark with stars at night. She shrugged again, so I just said aulelei tele – it’s very pretty – because I was trying to talk about the sunset.

Overall, I think I know enough to get by. I doubt I’ll get significantly better while I’m here, but I’m not doing too bad. However, I would caution you not to count on me to translate in case of a medical emergency. I don’t think my language skills are up to that.

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