Thursday, March 26, 2015

Maybe very awkward

Meanwhile, back in Chinese studies, I've been pulling my hair out over the translation in my textbook of 义务 as voluntary; duty, obligation and the phrase in a list of untranslated usages 也许非常别扭, which means something like perhaps extremely awkward. How can something be both voluntary and obligatory? How can something be perhaps very?

My teacher said that apparently contrary usages of 义务 happen in Chinese, too, but also offered that people perhaps do voluntary things out of a sense of duty - an ingenious, perhaps profound insight. (I remember when I was teaching English conversation in Japan and made up all sorts of things to answer people's questions, convinced that my suppositions didn't have to be correct, just to reassure my student that the English language made sense.) As for maybe very? It would only be in tension if someone were describing her own feeling, reporting that she was feeling perhaps extremely awkward (which would make it the kind of passive aggressive thing I thought it was). If it was one person trying to make sense of another's feelings - perhaps venturing a guess as to why someone was unusually subdued on some occasion - it makes perfect sense.

I'm only pretending to be annoyed. It's precisely where another language doesn't gloss easily in your own that you discover the differences between the languages and perhaps between the sensibilities of their users; disclosed, too, is the sublime artifice which is language itself. And if you've spent time with the later Wittgenstein, you expect insights of other kinds, too. Like just what voluntary means - no simple concept in English either! Or the slippery wonder which is maybe.

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