Written by Ruth Williams, Junior Researcher ’11-12

The Tongue of the Han

As a poet, language is my medium. I am drawn to muse on what language does, how it works, what it means; language is my fascinator.

Consequently, I approach the Korean language as a curious outsider. While I cannot always understand, I am amazed by the unique way Korean works, how it holds meanings both familiar and unfamiliar.

Like an intricate design of folded paper, the more I learn about the Korean language, the more meaning I discover with each word that tumbles out to reveal multiple meanings, multiple uses.

If this were not true, translation would be a simple act: a one-to-one correlation. Instead, translation is an art. A translator makes a choice, decides which word best captures the meaning of the original. But any honest translator will admit that such a choice is never final, never perfect. Translation is always an act of interpretation, the meaning of a given word, always a matter of opinion.

For example, the word han captures a Korean concept with one word; but, when we attempt to explain this same word in English we’re unable to assign it one meaning. Instead, it is translated in a variety of ways, as “bitterness,” “regret,” “lament,” etc., though none of these quite encapsulates the essence of han.

There is something beautiful about this inadequacy. It suggests a word is never just a word. Rather, it is an opportunity. If we pay attention to the way words shift under the influence of culture, the gap between our words and another’s, the contours of difference emerge.

Learning another language, then, is learning how to speak the differences of culture with the tongue.

A Hook for the Tongue

I am like a baby in Korean class, repeating and repeating a word to hold its shape and meaning in my head. I fill notebooks with sloppy Hangeul, attempting through repetition to wear a groove in my brain, and still I’m unable to connect word to meaning when the professor asks me the simplest of questions. The connection between brain and tongue gone faulty, my mouth stumbles, and something incomprehensible leaks out.

Other times, meaning rises like a fish to a pond’s surface. Someone will use a Korean word I know and it becomes a little hook of meaning on which I can hang my tongue.

If I listen carefully, not just to the words I recognize, but also to the tone, the pace and the gestures of the speakers, I can ride the arc of conversation into a moment of half-way understanding, full as I am with glimmering half-tongues.

Cartography of the Tongue

One of the beauties of encountering your tongue far from home is the way it is shaped by its travels. Language on the move mutates to take on new meanings, new sounds.

Often, Koreans who lack English fluency apologize profusely for their mistakes. They don’t realize how they defamiliarize my language, rendering it wonderfully foreign even to me, a native speaker.

For instance, on a gray and rainy day, I was talking with a Korean friend about the weather. I said it made me feel tired, but I wasn’t sure why. He said it was because the sky was “lonely.” There wasn’t enough light to make us feel fully awake. But, is a gray sky lonely? Yes, it seems so. The word was strangely perfect.

Such unusual uses of English open a window in my mother tongue for something new to enter. While these may not be “pure” acts of English, they are much more interesting: language in action, English shaped by a foreign tongue.

Tongue Tried

I’ve been tutoring a North Korean student in English conversation. In the course of our regular lessons, we’ve discussed all kinds of topics: life, love, politics, etc. Since his English comprehension is low, we often have to navigate around complex words, one of us making several attempts to explain ourselves. Worried there may be a gap in understanding, I find myself repeatedly asking, “Do you know what I’m saying?”

Over time, he’s learned this question and now regularly uses it himself. Yet, when he says it, he not only uses the same words as me, but also the same inflection. Though he is Korean, he uses an American accent, in a tone higher than his own. It seems in the course of teaching him my mother tongue, I’ve imparted on him my unique way of phrasing.

While it startled me to hear my voice coming from his mouth, as if he’d tried on my tongue, this experience made me realize language-learning is not just restricted to grammar and vocabulary. We also learn how people use words to express themselves, and what desires, worries and personalities such choices reflect.

My repeated use of “Do you know what I’m saying?” — in addition to his enthusiastic adoption of the question — belies our eagerness to be understood. We worry that we might not be able to speak to one another, to make our meanings known intimately by the other.

Our highest priority is communicated by “Do you know what I’m saying?” We’re two people looking to connect our two brains, our two tongues.

When the Tongue Fails

Though we may attempt to communicate, there are times when understanding is impossible. We cannot navigate the gap between our tongues. In these times, hands become words, and we make our way through conversation via gesture.

In Korea, I frequently communicate this way, using my whole body to speak. And the Koreans around me use their whole bodies to reply. We flail our arms, we point and use noise. Our faces contort to make meaning: raised eyebrows for surprise, furrowed foreheads for confusion, two hands running down the cheeks for sad.

But, there are times when even body language won’t carry us across, and all we are left with are the sounds of language divorced from meaning.

There was a time when I would have laughed if you told me I’d enjoy not understanding. Though so much of my life is centered around words, so much of my time devoted to massaging their meaning, in Korea there are moments when I am wordless.

In these times of wordlessness I appreciate how my access to language affects my access to power. Without the Korean tongue, I am powerless, forced to rely on the kindness of strangers to make my meaning known.

Such a position creates within me a great compassion for those who may not have access to my mother tongue. It illustrates the kindness embedded in our attempts to understand those who lack fluency, to bridge the gap between tongues.

Speaking With Tongues

The work we do to connect tongues reveals not only the way our language has shaped who we are, but how it might go on to shape other tongues, in other places.

Even when we are without language, we work to make our meaning known. Our desire to communicate our thoughts, feelings and experiences asserts itself even when we know we lack the words to make ourselves understood. We are propelled to connect in this way, using our tongues to traverse the gaps between us.

Ruth Williams is a 2011 Junior Researcher affiliated with translator Brother Anthony Taize at Sogang University.