Reflections on being German

Yesterday I watched Die Trapp Familie in Amerika with Granny and her German friend Marianne. The movie (although completely in German and lacking subtitles) was lovely, however, the real treat was the discourse that followed the show.

We got to talking about heimat, a word that both Granny and Marianne quickly pointed out had no direct English translation but could be described as "the home of your heart".

...Now, which direction do I want to take this article? Should this be an article discussing the intrinsic beauty and elusive character of foreign language? Or should I go on to talk about how heimat relates to my life, especially my life on the brink?

Lets start with the family since this is, after all, the baby blog.

Granny told us yesterday about how her grandfather used to talk about Germany. She said that when he spoke of Germany it was "as if Germany were the most beautiful place on earth. That there was nowhere else in the world like it and there never would be." I felt proud hearing that. It feels good to know that I come from somewhere.

Instantly, I was struck by how similar that sounds to Mr A describing Hawaii. When Mr A tells me that Hawaii is his home, he is telling me that Hawaii is his heimat. I think my husband feels displaced. He knows that his body and his family belong there, he wants to live and die there. His very sense of self is connected to that land. I imagine its miserable being away from the home of your heart. I dont think I ever fully understood what he was saying about Hawaii until I heard Granny yesterday talking about my great-great grandfather and his rueful passion for Germany.

And on to a more theoretical discussion of language...

Granny and I both believe that this is the best part of foreign language, the poetic beauty of words that never quite translate. Because a language is a package. It comes with the history and the culture of the people who speak it. Its specifically adapted to their lives, their needs.

Granny posed the questions today "how could you encompass everything that heimat means?" You can describe it, but you can not possibly give a full explanation of that word, its concept, the feelings associated with it, all in one English word.

There are lots of words like that. Just take the word for foreigner and say it in Thai (faraang), Japanese (gaijin) and Hawaiian (haole). Unique concepts, associated with totally different feelings, but for some reason they are all technically translated back to the rather benign English word "foreigner". The point is, if we never study the language, if we never speak with people who speak the language and we just tog through an English-Whatever Dictionary, we lose so much of what these words really mean to the people who use them.

I truly cant even imagine what is printed next to heimat in the English-German Dictionary. But I know what it means to me, in my lexicon and in my life. I guess in that sense, if we can get to the heart of these words, if we can hold onto these concepts rather than worry about English equivalents, then we are not only learning how to describe things as someone else would, we are expanding our own understanding of our language, our culture, and our selves.

1 comment:

  1. Melodie29.9.08

    from wordreference.com

    Heimat die; Heimat, Heimaten
    (Ort) home;
    home town/village;
    (Land) home;

    (Ursprungsland) natural habitat