Tamara O'Brien is a freelance writer working on corporate, commercial and government projects. Through her 26 Exchange she was reminded why she fell in love with language in the first place.
I was really pleased to get a language I hadn't a hope of understanding. Relieved in fact - anything vaguely familiar and I would have felt obliged to get it 'properly' translated, which would have taken all the fun out of it. My exchange partner is Farirai from Zimbabwe, and her language is Shona. My plan was to get a Shona-English dictionary from Amazon, translate as many words as I could and join the dots. I was thrilled to get a small, beautiful paperback with a waterfall on the cover. It seemed to bode well for the adventure. It was small though. I found less than a dozen words. But that seemed right. Here are some notes I made on my sparsely-translated printout of Farirai's text:
The language spoken in heaven
Words within words - which do you look up?
A fund of passwords
Lost in this delight of a language, I remembered that it belongs to one of the most beleagured peoples on earth. Farirai herself is an AIDS counsellor. So it felt a bit precious to luxuriate in it so much. But for someone whose trade is words, often hard, dry, commercial ones, Shona was as exhilarating as the waterfall had promised.
As for the translation - when I read Farirai's original piece I was surprised by how much I got 'right', at the beginning anyway. Her text has a poetic quality I could never have reproduced. What I really like is how the poetry is very unflowery - it's inherent in the rhythm and sense of wonder: "These high mountains, sometimes I see them covered with mist and I marvel where it comes from." Because I had no skill in the language I was free to invent a fable from its bare bones. That seems to me to reflect the theme. Heaven is poetry and earth is story.