Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews
Last week, Javier Bardem told Esquire that he has two therapists — one that he speaks to in his native Spanish and another that he speaks to in English. If you’re rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. When I first mentioned the quote to a few other people here, I was met with a conference room full of eyerolls. “That sounds like a Javier Bardem problem,” said one of my colleagues derisively before cackling and repeating it at least two more times (you know, in case someone hadn’t heard him the first time).
But I didn’t see it the same way.
Having grown up in a bilingual home — one in which my first words were in Farsi (a vestige of my Iranian heritage) but my first full sentence was in English (the language of my family’s future) — I had firsthand experience in how difficult it can be to translate certain sensibilities from one language to the other.
Case in point: The farsi word ta’arof has no English equivalent. Wikipedia explains it as an Iranian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank. Writing for the L.A. Times, Sarah Parvini does her best to explain the meaning as “the Persian art of etiquette.” She adds that “in a culture that emphasizes deference, ta’arof is a verbal dance that circles around respect. … People fight over who pays the bill, seem to refuse payments for a purchase and pretend they don’t want something to eat when they’re starving.”
If you’re still confused, that’s exactly my point. Much the same way that a non-Russian version of Dostoevsky can never fully capture the romantic murmurs behind his despair, neither is the English language capable of providing the true implications of ta’arof. It doesn’t exist in English primarily because its cultural, emotional and psychological underpinnings can’t be replicated within the confines of Americana.
So, in other words, I’m kind of lost when I want to express this civility to anyone other than my family members. The closest English equivalent? Again, absolutely nothing. And more generally, I’m often caught between two worlds. I dream in Farsi, speak in English and think in both.
“Emotions and bilingualism produce a complicated but also a very personal reality that has no set rules,” writes Francois Grosjean, a former psycholinguistics professor at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, in his Psychology Today column “Life as a Bilingual.” “Some bilinguals prefer to use one language, some the other, and some use both of them to express their feelings and emotions.”
In an interview with Grosjean, Cuban-American author Gustavo Pérez Firmatsimilarly tells of how different languages trigger different memories and associations, “When I think in Spanish, behind my voice is the voice of my father; when I think in English, behind my voice are my wife’s and my children’s voices. Spanish is a father tongue, desired and distant; English is a conjugal and filial tongue, here for the taking.”
More proof: María Luisa Bombal, a Chilean author, complained that writing in English never gave her the goce íntimo [intimate pleasure] she experienced in Spanish…