‘One cannot think in one language and write in another language’

‘One cannot think in one language and write in another language’

Adaptation of the International Mother Language Day poster by UNESCO including various Naga languages with the greeting, ‘How are you?’ (Morung adaption created by Imtinungsang Longchar)

February 21 is International Mother Language Day

Pfokrelo Kapesa
Dimapur | February 20


“One cannot think in one language and write in another language,” says T Senka Ao, former editor of the Ao daily, Ao Milen.


Ao is in conversation with The Morung Express on the significance of language that is beyond the spoken word. February 21 is International Mother Language Day (IMLD) and this year’s theme is ‘Indigenous Languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation.’


“A lot gets lost in translation,” he notes, highlighting how every language has a different linguistic pattern and cultural connotation.


People writing in mother languages often make the mistake of importing foreign ideas and meanings without really understanding the cultural context in the language they are writing in.


Linguistic patterns and non verbal cues are very important in conveying a message, he observes. “A very touching story in Sümi will not have the same impact in Ao,” for instance.


The IMLD was first announced by UNESCO in 1999. The United Nations General Assembly through a resolution formally established the IMLD in 2008 calling its member states to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.”


But with limited support to indigenous languages, indigenous people have often had to depend on other common languages to translate their stories. In this process, at times, it is not only the flavor that gets lost in translation but even the ideas can be misleading.


“If I literally translate concepts like GST and demonetization into Ao, it may not give the intended meaning,” says T Senka Ao.


Foreign terms and ideas are conceptualized in a foreign culture, with its own cultural baggage and connotation. To make sure the essence is not lost or the idea misrepresented, one has to translate and conceptualize in the culture of the audience. This is why he adds, “One cannot think in one language and write in another language.”

Originality at all cost
“Originality should be maintained at all times and cost.” Many people write in mother languages for the love of it, others do it as a service to their community.


Ao opines that we run the risk of doing ‘disservice’ to our mother languages when originality is not maintained. There are many non-English terms in the English language. We use these terms in italics with loose translation, he highlights, acknowledging that there is no English equal to that particular term.


We can learn from this and “stop attempting to translate each and every term for convenience sake,” Ao suggests. “We have many words and terms that cannot be translated in its entirety. I don’t get the same satisfaction when I eat in paper plates as I do when I eat on banana leaves,” he quips.


No amount of learning and proficiency in other languages can have the same impact as it does in the mother language. People may succeed in transmitting information but the impact and understanding is not the same, he feels.


It is in this context that more writing in indigenous languages becomes essential.


This article is part of The Morung Express series on the importance and significance of Indigenous language to commemorate the International Year of Indigenous Languages