Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I am trying (ozenmek or yeltenmek) to learn Turkish


I can be a big jackass sometimes, so stubborn about random principles that I drive everyone around me to scratching their eyes out in frustration.

Last night, I had a beer with some friends on a street in Kadıköy known as "The Boneyard." The Boneyard is a street chock full of cheap bars and pubs that cater to foreigners. (They also cater to Turks of course, but its a bit "spicy" here--a mafia style shooting happened last year, for example.) Most of the bars have been ruined. A friend of mine likens it to locusts. A group of us expats will discover one of these bars and occupy a table for the night. The next night, there are a million of us, screaming and belching and drunkenly shouting until we have devoured all the courtesy and patience the servers have, at which point the swarm moves on to another place. It's biblical.

Livane--a bar also famed for it's Turkish folk music--has long been harvested, but the occasional bug will light on a server or two. Like I and two friends did last night. As soon as the waiter at Livane saw the table of three hapless Americans, he scurried in alarm to the bar and had the bartender come ingratiatingly over, slightly bowed, his hands folded. "May I help you?" he says in English. This is where my inner donkey comes out. You see, I have little stomach for this. Okay, I admit it. Part of it is pride. I am not a tourist fresh off the cruise ship with my tour book in one hand, and sunscreen in the other. I have been learning Turkish for over two years--I have, in fact, been translating a few of Turkey's literary authors--and goddamn it, I don't need this guy to translate, "One beer" as if I were some toothy-grinned newbie.

Part of it is a kind of class disgust. As advantageous as the world's need for English is, on this personal scale it smells slightly of colonialism, especially service in English. Why does he come scuttling over with the lowered head to give the Raj their own private translation service? In America the waiter would mutter, "Live in my country, better damn well speak the language." And to hear a lot of my fellow expats talk--"it's a good restaurant, because their English is good." No, that only makes it a convenient restaurant. And I've even heard friends say, "She's a very nice person. You know her English is good." As if English is some kind of moral virtue rather than a skill.

My final reason is this: I hate being used. There are a legion of obsessive people who simply see me, and all foreigners, as tools--things to be used to improve their English. Another friend has named this particular treatment, "the language rape". A person runs up to you in the street, or in a restaurant, and starts harassing you when you clearly want to be left alone just so they can practice their present perfect.

"I feel sorry for you," a Turk told me once. "Everyone wants to learn English, everyone in the world. And not because they love your language. They just see it as something that can buy advantages. It makes it difficult for you to learn a language yourselves, and then, well, you miss out on so much."


One of the things I love about learning a different language is the way in which it changes your thinking--utterly--sometimes the way your very thoughts are structured. When the languages are different enough (like Turkish and English), certain words from one simply do not exist in the other. You end up needing a whole sentence to explain them. For example, in Japanese you have the famous noun aware (pronounced "a-wa-ray). Aware is the feeling of quiet sadness when you realize that nothing lasts forever. When you leave college, for example, and are driving out of the university campus for the last time and remembering all the friends you made there, feeling half-happy at the memory and half-grieved about its loss, this is aware.

Or take Turkish. There are umpteen words for "try". One is yeltenmek. The Turkish dictionary states the definition as follows: "To dare to embark upon something that you can't or shouldn't do. To have the intention of starting a task (you can't finish)." It's like the lovechild of "dare" and "hopelessly try". A good example is this: Fanatiklar Kadıköy'de Jimbomun bayrağını kaldırmaya yeltendiler "They had the balls to attempt raising our rival team's flag in our territory!" One dictionarily legit word in Turkish, and I had to use a vulgar slang expression and four extra words to explain it in English. Another word is for try is özenmek. It's a hybrid of the following two definitions: "To work hard at something, to want to bring any job to a good result," and "to imitate someone, be carried away with the desire to copy and look the same as another." So it comes out having, in English, two meanings at once--to both try very hard but at the same time to be imitative and fake because you're trying too hard. So you get this sentence from Aziz Nesim, "Kimi sanatçılar da yapmaçık yollarla deliliğe özenerek okurlarını ilgisini tırnaklarlar;" which means, "And some writers, in a totally affected manner, arouse their reader's interest by ozenmeking insanity." In other words, they try too hard to pose as crazy people and half-believe themselves.

And, almost as cool, other languages use words that we almost never use in our own and thus make not just the words, but the ideas and emotions themselves take on a new importance. In Japanese, everyone says they are natsukashii at least five billion times a day. The best English translation is "nostalgiac"--a rather fancyish word that you simply don't toss around willy-nilly. An American, for example, me, when he sees a favorite cartoon from his childhood such as The Dungeons and Dragons Hour, will mostly likely say in a wistful voice, "Hey, I remember that show!" A Japanese person would say, "Natsukashii!" Or when I ate Japanese rice crackers for the first time in 8 years this past fall on a trip to Japan, I said "Natsukashii" at the first hint of this flavor long forgotten, but I can't imagine eating a cracker and saying "I feel nostalgic for these" in English--maybe simply "I've missed these!" When speaking Japanese, you start saying natsukashii so much, that the feeling itself becomes more noticeable and more valued. Suddenly, it's something you let register in your head instead of glossing over with words like "miss" or "remember". In Turkish there is the famous miş past tense when you are reporting things you have heard but haven't witnessed yourself. If your mom tells you that your sister bought a Harley, you'd say "Harley almış" instead of the regular past tense aldı. You could qualify this in English by saying, "Apparently my sister bought a Harley" or "It seems my sister bought a Harley" but most of the time we'd just say, "My sister bought a Harley." But with the miş tense in Turkish, I find myself much more aware, even in English, of when I've just heard something and when I have witnessed the event myself. My brain works at distinguishing them much more carefully. In other words, at almost 40, my thoughts are restructuring themselves in a way English doesn't need them to do. And that's cool. Every time my brain performs some new linguistic acrobatics, I get a little high. It's like that feeling little kids get when they learn something completely new "Eggs come out of a chickens butt?"

And finally of course, other languages give us words for ideas that are always on the tip of our tongues, but which have no equivalent in English. Take the Turkish kolay gelsin--literally, "May your work come easy." You can say this to anyone who is working at any time, and it means "Dude, your working like a dog, and I'm not going to help you, but I'd like to at least recognize the fact." It's a way to say something in appreciation of their labor. You enter a store with kolay gelsin, pass someone cleaning the stairs with kolay gelsin, ask the guy in the copy room for two hundred copies with kolay gelsin. I remember in Boston watching my boss scream in frustration over a new operating system on our school's computers. She had been wrestling with it for hours. I wanted to say something, I don't know, anything to let her know I had watched all this struggle and sympathized and so I said "Wow, that looks annoying." But I couldn't help feeling that there should have been a word for what I wanted to say, something more precise. Well there is, in Turkish. Kolay gelsin, Emily!

So no thank you Mr. English speaking Boneyard bartender, it's "bir tane ellilik bira lütfen" and you can shove your "one beer please" up your kıç.

No comments: