Lost in Translation

Amanda Brinegar - Senegal


December 9, 2010

While I tell these stories in English, I live my life now in Wolof.  My struggle to translate life to language seems impossible; I feel like a typist who holds her hands over the keys slightly off, the words coming out garbled.

I am lost in translation.

Like an infant, I am in a new world, surrounded by new words. Unable to think in Wolof, I am no longer using language for myself. I am overwhelmed, filled up with emotions and thoughts I need to express, but can’t until I learn the words. In my village, I can’t feel, I can’t think, without Wolof.

Sometimes I am Leona’s magic eight ball, an object that curious villagers shake with their questions. I can only answer yes or no.  I am a parrot, repeating the simple words I hear. The women in my family pull me into our grass-hut kitchen and point to things as they cook and announce their names over and over until I memorize them. I take these Wolof words into my mouth like foreign foods; it is an acquired taste. My family sits around and asks me questions and then teaches me how to respond. Everyone goes silent as I repeat what I’ve learned in my English-stained Wolof.  They mock me and laugh.  I’m the child, the magic eight ball, the parrot, the village clown.

I am in this lonely space between jumbled consonants and vowels. I have always used language to understand and connect with others, but now I have been reduced to gestures and charades. I am learning to read an entirely new, rudimentary human form of body language, facial expressions and movements hoping that eventually I will be able to take words and connect them to movements and objects like sticky notes.

My host brother told my team leader Anta that I was so reserved, quiet and polite. I told her to tell him that he better take advantage of it, because when I learn the language all hell’s going to break lose. He looked into my eyes and laughed. Every day I am becoming less silent.

Today, a month after joining the village, I found myself properly greeting a man and answering his questions in full sentences. Before he turned to leave, he said, “Degg nga Wolof bu bax.”

“You understand Wolof well.”

Jang la ndank, ndank.

Learning slowly, slowly.

Amanda Brinegar