In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
Honey, sweetheart, darling, dear, love, babe, buttercup, sweet pea, angel. There’s a name for these croonings, these softeners, these affection-offerings. In English, they’re often called terms of endearment, and in the endearment is the backstory, the stage fully set: I might use a term of endearment to express how dear you already are to me, or in hopes of endearing myself to you. Every language has them. And every speaker of every language—depending not just on their personality, but also on where and when they live and who they share their space and speech with—surely has access to a range of terms that feel comfortable, others silly, others subversive, and others too syrupy to even say aloud.
There are terms of endearment for acquaintances, too: used not to express love or passion, but to inspire trust, proffer everyday kindness, relay friendly intent. And they can all be very difficult to translate! Some may look simple: the Spanish “querido,” for instance, can shift quite smoothly into the terrain of “dear.” But what about a young vendor calling out to me in a Mexico City market, in her Mexico City accent, as “amiga”—a term that means, of course, “friend,” but spoken with an air of truly casual banter, a dash of complicity I wouldn’t receive if I were much older than she? What about a friend mentioning his “abuelita,” where the diminutive has actually nothing to do with his grandmother’s physical size and everything to do with his fondness for her? Güey, boludo, pana, pata, tío: How are these nuances—their places and times, their tones and edges—to be rendered in translation?
As usual, it depends. And it depends, I guess, on almost everything else.
Chamini Kulathunga, who translates from Sri Lankan Sinhalese, has a wonderful way of approaching terms of endearment: she calls them “miracle words,” because they can make or break an interaction between people.
A frequent miracle world in colloquial Sinhalese, she tells me, is “machang” (මචං) [macaṃ]. She defines it as “an umbrella term that covers a range of endearment terms including bro, buddy, dude, man, mate, my friend, yo, and everything in between and beyond. In the context of Sinhalese, it is a term that has the capacity to dissolve all social hierarchies, be it class, caste, profession, ethnicity, religion, and lately, even gender. It is a term that turns strangers and enemies into friends, suggesting that they are ready to have an honest conversation with you, simultaneously inviting you to do the same. It is a term that creates a safe space between people in that particular linguistic situation.”
Historically, “machang” has been used mostly among men. “The origin of ‘machang,’” Chamini explains, “traces back to the Tamil word ‘machchan’ (மச்சன்), which is used in formal Tamil as a kinship term by the siblings of the bride to address the groom who is marrying into the family. As such, the original Tamil usage of ‘machchan’ resembles a meaning similar to ‘brother-in-law’ in English. Over the years, the Tamil kinship term ‘machchan’ has transformed into a general term of endearment used among friends. It is believed that the term came into being…as a result of young men starting to call their friends who had an unmarried sister to playfully suggest the possibility of the two men becoming ‘machchans’ (brothers-in-law) one day.” In other words, the colloquial use came about by dint of macho solidarity.
Today, Chamini continues, millennial-aged women increasingly call each other “machang,” too—invoking a similar sense of solidarity, but without the machismo. And there’s another layer at work: “The women involved in the conversation…share the awareness that they are together transcending a linguistic territory that conventionally inhabited a masculine linguistic space. In fearlessly incorporating ‘machang’ into their vocabulary to interact with each other, the women also share a sense of being linguistic rebels in reforming linguistic norms to reverse traditionally gendered language.” What’s more, “machang” is increasingly being used by millennial Sri Lankans of all genders to address their friends. Cropping up more and more often in contemporary conversation, this act of genderless solidarity, as Chamini calls it, expresses genuine social progress. It’s nothing short of “a very powerful linguistic event in the history of the Sinhalese language.”
Given the complex social history of “machang” and its contemporary shifts—and given that it can mean, as she said, “bro, buddy, dude, man, mate, my friend, yo, and everything in between and beyond”—I asked Chamini how she translates “machang” when it comes up in her work.
While some translators opt to keep certain colloquialisms in the source language, she quickly decided that leaving “machang” untranslated wasn’t an option for her: the cultural underpinnings are too important, and almost all Anglophone readers would miss them. So, she says, “I have variously translated ‘machang’ depending on the period the text was written, [the] nature of the relationship between the characters, and texture of the language used in the original.”
Chamini shared an example from the prose poem “Eastbound,” by Ruwan Bandujeewa, published in The Los Angeles Review: a surreal poetic account of smoking, the loss of time, and Wind—personified—at death’s door. “My friend, Wind is sick,” we read early on. “Machang,” translated here as “my friend,” recurs several times throughout the piece. Chamini opted for this term over “bro” or “buddy” because she felt those words would stand out too much, might distract from the otherwise gentle, lyrical register of the whole poem. So she had to choose a word in English that would speak not only to the nuances of “machang,” but also to the texture of the poem in its entirety, folding the former into the latter.
At the end of the day, Chamini concludes, such decisions are mostly instinctive, and they’re never carved in stone: another translator may have chosen different words in the same context. “Despite all my efforts,” she says, “I have been unable to come up with a word in English for ‘machang’ that encapsulates all its beauty and social implications.”
So what happens to them? To all of the word’s beauty and social implications, I mean. In the absence of an “equivalent” term, have they been—here comes every translator’s least-favorite phrase—“lost” in translation?
I’d like to think not. In fact, I find myself remembering something I once heard the poet and translator Lindsay Turner say (something I liked so much that I mentioned it in an earlier column as well): what if some things in translation are not lost, but kept secret?
I’d like to think that every language has “miracle words” that are miraculous precisely because they come alive in that language, charging the air between speakers of those words, gesturing collectively to a shared history—and to the way language must and can and does change as its speakers do.
I’d like to think that translation isn’t an exhibit of equivalences or a certificate of total exposure, but a conversation, as between two people who are interested in each other and respect each other and will never be able to learn everything about each other even if they tried. They’ll say as much as they can, as clearly as they can. Some words will change in their mouths and ears, because that’s what mouths and ears do, and will be beautiful in transformation. Some words will unfurl like ribbons. Others will stay coiled in all their complexity: not absent, just secret.
Isn’t that a miracle, too?
Chamini Kulathunga is a Sri Lankan translator. She is a graduate of the Iowa Translation Workshop and a former visiting fellow at Cornell University’s South Asia Program. She is a recent recipient of The Global South Translation Fellowship awarded by Cornell University’s Institute for Comparative Modernities. Chamini was Asymptote’s former Editor-at-Large for Sri Lanka and a former blog editor and staff editor at Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. She is currently working as an associate editor at The Song Bridge Project. Her writings, interviews, and translations have appeared and are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Los Angeles Review, The Massachusetts Review, The World Literature Today, Asymptote, Project Plume, and elsewhere. More of her work can be found on chaminikulathunga.com.