A key moment in South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel July’s People depicts the white protagonist Maureen as she is confronted by her black “houseboy” July. Maureen has been displaced from her privilege by violence accompanying the (imagined) end to apartheid. Without warning, July, so re-christened years before by his employers, uses his new found freedom to talk at her in his own language, making Maureen realize with sudden shock her utter ignorance regarding vast areas of July’s life. Instantly, Mwawate, for that is July’s true name, is transformed from transparent familiarity to opaque difference. Maureen is forced to recognize she hardly knows him, that she is only dimly aware of his fears and desires. Language becomes a powerful marker of the chasmic differences between them.
Those of us who, like Mwawate, have lived our lives between languages will recognize this scene. Our conditions may not be as dire as that of Mwawate and Maureen at the end of apartheid, but we will relate to the sense with which Gordimer leaves us at the end of the scene—that languages are freighted with emotions, histories, and ideologies that have their own autonomy, that what we feel and who we are are not separate from the language(s) in which we feel and have our being.
I am not a language relativist—a votary of the notion that languages are irrevocably different. I wouldn’t translate (as I have) if I was; however, while linguistic differences may not be insurmountable, neither will it do to pretend that such differences are inconsequential. Do we envy or pity in the same way in all the languages? Do we laugh in German the way we do in Tamil? Or love in English the way we do in Hindi? How, for example, might this unforgettable Hindi love song from Guide translate into English?
Is the “love” expressed here in Mohammed Rafi’s inimitable voice accessible to non-Hindi speakers? I know I can explain in English, translate if you will, what I feel in this song in Hindi, and that is significant indeed; at the same time explanation and feeling are quite different, aren’t they?
Enough said—love, like hate, is no more and no less than a word. And owning that fact, as Gordimer shows us, is the very opposite of dismissing the significance of love.