By Yasmin Boakye
It took me almost twenty years to realize that nearly everything my mother had ever said to me was in translation. (Translation: English is my mother’s second language, but it is the first and only language she ever speaks with me. Until I was in college, I didn’t bother to understand what this meant.)
I had always known this, in some respect; I’d just never thought about it before. When I thought about translation, my mind generally skipped past my own immigrant family to my friend Darlene’s household. (Translation: Darlene’s family is from El Salvador, and her mother only speaks Spanish, and so through most of high school she dutifully accompanied her to doctor’s visits, tax filing appointments, and parent-teacher conferences. She is, as my own mother often reminds me, a very good daughter.) I thought about the subtitled independent films that my dad liked taking us to watch during the holidays. I thought about Spanish class and Latin class and the Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation and games my sister and I played where one of us would pretend to be a martian and the other would be a cosmonaut.
But I never needed courses in foreign languages and imaginary transnational exploits to understand translation; my mother and I have always had translation stories of our own. It wasn’t until I left her to find myself in college that I realized how unique the communication between us was; how hard we worked to understand each other, how distinctively painful it was when we couldn’t bridge the gaps.
Both of my parents appear to be picture-perfect American assimilation stories. They each came, a decade apart, to the U.S. in their early twenties from the West African nation of Ghana, a former English colony. They had been learning what my father calls the “Queen’s English” since they were in grade school. Both obtained post-secondary degrees in the U.S., and both decided to stay in America indefinitely. They met in New York. (Translation: The American city, the one that never sleeps.) They were naturalized. (Translation: They revoked all allegiances to Ghana so they could become American.) They fell in love, and got married in a white dress/black tux ceremony. They said their vows in perfect, tear-stained English. They moved to D.C., the seat of their new nation’s capital. They had children in the suburbs, my younger sister and I. They taught us to speak English. Perfect English. (Translation: We were not allowed to use the slang of our peers.)
But there are fissures between them that are subtle and difficult to notice. When I listen carefully, I realize that my father doesn’t seem to reach for English the way my mother has to; the words are always already on his tongue. He is almost a decade older than my mother, and so he has a decade more of Americanization than she does. He hasn’t had a perfect experience in the U.S., by any means. (Translation: When I am old enough, he tells me about his experience about joining Toastmasters, a speech making club, so that he can improve his English, and taking lessons with a speech therapist to lose his accent because no one could understand him.) But everything related to these struggles is in past tense with him.
By contrast, my mother is still always caught looking for the right words, and the right responses. Even over the phone I can hear her silently searching for the right thing to say.
I’m several thousand miles away from America, in my parent’s home country, in a small village, in a bare bedroom, blindly searching for the light switch when I am electrocuted by a live wire. The entire thing happens outside of my body, and so for a while I’m not sure whether the scream I hear came from me or from someone else. After a minute or so, I realize that I might be dead. I call my parents, who are asleep, in America, and leave a message on the answering machine asking them to confirm that I am still alive.
My mother calls back while I am crying, and when I answer, I cannot stop sobbing. She tells me to calm down, and when I finally do, she asks me what happened. I tell her, and make the mistake of mentioning that my hands may have been wet. (Translation: I was drinking water right beforehand.)
“I should have told you that in Ghana,” she says, “you need to dry your hands carefully before you touch the light switch.”
This is the wrong thing to say to someone who is still convinced that they might be dead. But instead of complaining, I say, “Okay mom.” (Translation: This is the closest she can come to saying “I’m sorry that happened.” I say it to myself instead, in my head. “I’m sorry this happened, to you.”)
My mother is so proud that I’m a writer, or so she says, to other people. When it is just us, in person or on the phone, she complains about how I should have been an English major instead of a Women’s Studies major, that she’s confused about what I’m doing at school and about how I will get a job. (Translation: She doesn’t realize that being an English major isn’t the same as being a creative writer, and doesn’t understand that neither major is likely to get me a job in this economy.)
She also doesn’t realize the obsession that goes along with the skill; how afraid I am of misusing words that I’ve only read in dictionaries and magazines or wasting words or accidentally mutilating clichés. She trusts my English wholeheartedly, far beyond the level that I trust it myself.
One weekend I am flipping through the Sunday circulars at the dining room table (Translation: I’m looking for things I can’t afford to buy) across from my mother, who is working on her computer. She’s newly employed as a kidney transplantation coordinator, and has been on and off the phone all morning managing the future of a newly available kidney. (Translation: My mother is trying to shift life from one dying body to another.)
She hangs up the phone for the tenth time and sighs.
“This job is for the pets,” she tells me.
“What?” (Translation: I’m genuinely confused)
“I said, this job is for the pets.” (Translation: She thinks I didn’t hear her.)
“What does that even mean, Mom?”
“I don’t know.”
I didn’t know either, but, knowing my mother, I suspected that it wasn’t an actual cliché. I searched my own annals of idiomatic knowledge and suspected that the phrase was ‘this job is for the birds.’ But I wasn’t sure. A few minutes later my mother asks me what the right phrase is. I’m forced to admit that I don’t know. (Translation: I’m unsure, again. As always.)
“Do you realize that mom is confused, like, all the time?” I ask my younger sister during one of the few evenings we spend together after I come back from my sophomore fall in college. She looks at me quizzically, for just a half-second before returning the majority of her attention back to her iPhone. (Translation: She’s not ignoring me, she’s seventeen, there’s boy drama to be had in cyberspace and through text message. Existential analyses of our family issues are, at least for now, passé.)
“I’m serious,” I say to her, hoping to regain her attention. “Think about how many times one of us has to explain something to Mom, at the grocery store, at the bank, about computers…”
“Yasmin,” she says, interrupting my train of thought. “Duh.”
(Translation: I’m stating the obvious. But Cozette, who is three years my junior, has always managed to be about ten times more perceptive than me in less than half as many words. It’s a skill I envy.)
One day during my first week being home in nearly a year, I take my mother to a film after an argument. (Translation: The movies are like make-up sex for my family. We take each other out when we are still angry and by the credits we are least okay.) I explain how it’s a Woody Allen film about love and meaning with a splash of humor and that my anthropology professor had found it stunningly beautiful. She nods her head quietly and leans back awkwardly in the passenger seat of her SUV as I speed around the curves of the Capital Beltway. We park in a garage, which is free because it’s late and my mother happily puts away the quarters she brought, newly reserved for another evening’s use. I ask the attendant for two tickets to Midnight in Paris, and notice my mother looking at me quizzically through the corner of my eye. (Translation: I know something’s wrong.)
“What?” I ask her as the woman behind the glass hands me two pre-ripped tickets and directs us towards the escalator to the theaters.
“No, it’s okay.” (Translation: She’s afraid to say.)
“Your dad and I already saw it.”
“A few weekends ago.”
“I told you we were seeing a Woody Allen movie. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I thought you meant something else. Like another Woody film.”
In retrospect, I’m not sure she realized that Midnight in Paris was a Woody Allen film. I’m not sure she knows who Woody Allen is at all.
I am chatting casually with a friend about writing when he asks if I knew that the English language has twice as many words as French. I didn’t, but I am not surprised. No wonder there are so many places to get lost and confused in, so many ways to rearrange things, both correctly and incorrectly.
I am reminded of another random conversation I had, with a stranger at a coffee shop, a seasoned woman who had traveled the world and was in St. Louis to trace her family’s ancestry in an archive she’d discovered. After regaling me with stories about her volunteer work abroad and museum adventures around the country, she asked about my family, my life. I shrugged. My parents were from the same place that every single one of our ancestors had lived. We didn’t have exciting transnational tales, beyond their flights to the U.S. (Translation: We were boring, compared to her.)
This woman who I’d never met before was disappointed in me. She looked into my eyes and told me sternly that our family history was unique, and special, and that I needed to tell my mother how proud of her I was for being so brave, to come to this country at such a young age. In the moment, I was confused, but I agreed, that I did need to tell her this. It was something I’d never expressed. (Translation: I never told my mom how brave she was, for coming to this country at such a young age, even though I should have.)
Another winter break, another household argument, another make-up film. This one is part of a fancy European film festival, and we get to the theater a little early because there is a reception beforehand. My mother is tickled because there is free valet. At the reception she heads straight towards the refreshments, and reaches for a Styrofoam cup of Austrian wine. I’m twenty years old, and they aren’t carding, so without actually wanting any, I do too.
“What are you doing with that?” she asks me loudly, and immediately, I duck my eyes and walk quickly away from the t-shirted pair of volunteers behind the table. (Translation: I’m embarrassed by how embarrassed I am.)
“You’re acting like Ama,” I hiss to my mother, who is saying What? What? repeatedly as she follows me to our theater.
“You’re acting like Ama,” I say again as my face begins to cool down. I tell her about how fourteen-year old Ama, her niece, my cousin, had complained loudly in front of a cashier at the movies that she was too old for the kid’s ticket that my sister had tried to buy her. The situation feels just like that, in reverse. My mother laughs and I laugh too and then she tries to take my wine. (Translation: She cannot resist an excuse for a two-for-one special.)
The plot of the film is complicated, and my mother keeps asking me if I know what is going on until I admit that I, too, am lost. She isn’t bothered. The film is set in the highlands of Spain, and she marvels at everything.
“That looks just like the Grand Canyon,” she whispers to me every time the camera pans out to show a sparse-looking Spanish valley. “This reminds me so much of the bus we took to get there. We rode, on a bus there.” I nod silently. She says, “I can’t believe those houses are empty,” when the film shows the two protagonists squatting in a European enclave for the wealthy. I nod silently, again.
People are looking back at us, staring, because she’s never been good at whispering. I try to ignore them, and resist the urge to shush her. I am proud that she is with me. I am happy she is enjoying both cups of wine. I revel in her happiness, her voice, her smiles, and the beauty of the few things that need no translation.
Yasmin Boakye is an essayist and fiction writer raised in the Maryland suburbs of DC. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices participant at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in mater mea, Refinery29, Escapism Literary Magazine and Bird’s Thumb. She is currently based in St. Louis.