The Fault in Our Words

I suppose all women are like me. Or maybe I’m making excuses for all the lotions and potions I hoard in my bathroom. This Christmas I got even more–which my husband says is a sign I’m impossible to buy gifts for. I love them though!

Deep in the dark corner, I rediscovered a particularly exotic bottle.

My husband’s business involves a lot of German suppliers. They are all quite charming, and his business associates sent presents when Veronica was born. Blankets, clothes, books; so many sweet and thoughtful gifts. I am still humbled as I remember it.

The bottle said “pflegeolbad- mutter und kind.” Inside was highly aromatic oil–licorice. How foreign! Americans wouldn’t have a licorice-flavored baby. And I couldn’t deal with it when she was a baby. But now that I’ve found it again I find it sort of earthy and interesting.

mutter and kind– well, I’m the mother in that line up, and maybe I wouldn’t mind smelling like aniseed. I can cipher out that olbad means bath oil.

But I have no idea what pflege means. Should you put the oil in the bathwater? Use it before or after the bath?

Maybe pflege means scented.

I recall that the Project Management Institute claims that 67% of communication is non-verbal. Not words. So maybe it doesn’t matter what it means. It’s fun to think about what it might mean. Probably if I asked babelfish it would be something boring.

I haven’t always thought that way. I do so love words. I think I raise the median on that 67%, because my verbal communication is more like 90% verbal. I have belabored over emails and memos to find words to express the shade of meaning and tone I want.

And again and again it has been missed.

Only a few years ago I learned that it wasn’t a fault in my prose. It’s just the nature of communication.

I heard a podcast this last week about an American guy who fell in love with a French poem. It was cute and simple, and he decided to translate it.

But translate what?

The words? The meaning?

The tone?

The meter?

All of those things were what made the poem so enchanting. He ended up making more than a hundred translations, just to try different aspects of what that poem meant.

And who is to say which English version is most true to the original? Or whether that was ever even the point?

I ran into a friend taking a walk with his baby the other day. She was all snuggled in a carrier on his chest while he and I had a fascinating in-depth conversation about parent concerns. She was cute as a button, half-lidded eyes. He hoped she would sleep, but she never quite tipped over into dreamland.

At the end of our talk he said “She never lets me talk for more than 5 minutes without squawking.”

Well! I can feel very honored. I am the rare individual who gives Baby peace.

So I should feel proud? Probably not. More likely it had nothing to do with me. Maybe she happened to have the right amount of sun hitting her skin, or just the right amount of sleepy so stay quiet.

Did it have anything to do with me? It couldn’t have had anything to do with what I was saying, because she didn’t understand language yet.

Her frame of mind and willingness to listen is most likely a happy coincidence of circumstance.

Or maybe it had everything to do with me.

There is no way for me to know. I can’t translate the human mind.

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