Ha Ram Hwang ’17 is trying to explain a lovely Korean phrase with no good English equivalent: If you type “잘부탁드립니다” in Google Translate, you get back “Thank you very much.”
But that falls pitifully short.
“It’s pronounced ‘Jal-boo-tak-deurip-nida,’ and it means, ‘I entrust myself to you,’” says Hwang. “It’s like a greeting, but more. When you are hired for a job, you would tell your new boss, ‘잘부탁드립니다,’ which is like saying ‘Please take good care of me.’”
“잘부탁드립니다” was one of some 60 words or phrases, from 15 languages, that Amherst students submitted to Hwang and Ju Hyun “Judy” Lee ’18—and that mostly make Google Translate blow a tihendi. (That’s “gasket” in Estonian).
“There are all these snippets of people’s lives that go untranslated,” says Hwang, who, with Lee, gathered and celebrated such phrases through their culminating project for English 490: The Multicultural Game. “But if you can somehow translate it into English, it feels like such a relief!” adds Lee.
Taught by Benigno Sanchez-Eppler, lecturer in English, the course was about the experience and aesthetic of being multilingual. Discussions began by exploring theory but soon “spiraled toward the personal,” says Hwang.
The eight students (who spoke Korean, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese) shared stories about living in more than one language.
To muster up these hard-to-translate snippets, Lee and Hwang spent two days last April stationed at a table in Keefe Campus Center. The idea was to entice students to stop by and write down a word or phrase from their native language, or a language that held meaning for them. A stack of creamy deckled sheets of paper beckoned, plus a rainbow array of markers—with Hershey’s Kisses and Twix strewn strategically to sweeten the deal.
The table soon drew a crowd, as students pondered which linguistic loot to offer up. “I was surprised by how many languages are spoken on campus,” says Lee. “Language is social capital, but it’s also a ‘secret’ when two speak the same language.”
One woman offered a word unique to Marathi, a language from western India. Pronounced “kharkat,” it roughly translates as the crust left behind on the plate after a meal.
Beselot Birhanu ’17 put down the Amharic word tïzïta, a particular mix of memory and nostalgia. “But not for a discrete memory,” says Birhanu. “It’s more like a longing.”
Another student recorded “L’esprit de l’escalier,” literally “staircase wit,” coined by the French philosopher Denis Diderot. It means thinking of the perfect comeback too late, since you were speechless at the time, and only came up with it when you reached the bottom of the stairs.
Once others knew about the project, there was a sneeuwbal effect (that’s Dutch for “snowball”). Many students contacted their families back home to round up resonant words in Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, French, German and more. “People not only shared vocabulary with us, but emotions, sensations, and stories,” says Hwang.
After Hwang and Lee collected the now-color-splashed sheets, they placed them in a lovely pouaka (Maori for “box”) with a ribbon. The pair later presented their finds at an event in the Friedman Room, geared toward their classmates and others at the College who live between two (or more) languages.
To see more of their finds, check out our swb yeeb yam. That’s Hmong, by the way, for “slideshow.”