Gained in Translation

Last week in Bulgaria, I witnessed a group of Sri Chinmoy’s female students recite 100 of his spiritual aphorisms in a row, which they had memorised with superhuman fluency. The content of these aphorisms was inspiring, of course, but so was the recital itself. They recited in perfect unison. Nobody used a word or a syllable out of place. It was almost like a single voice, sweetly chanting the beautiful words of their teacher.

To make it more amazing, English was the second language for all of these women! Those of us fortunate enough to be raised on English can be rather lazy about learning other languages, let alone perfecting them. But these women had learned English well enough to recall 100 aphorisms by heart.

When I visit Indonesia or Malaysia, I like to practise my Indonesian language skills. (Indonesian and Malay are such similar dialects that they are practically interchangeable.) I was a pretty good student of Bahasa Indonesian (that’s Indonesian language, natch) at school, but kept out of practice for years after that. Since then, my skills seem to improve with each visit. Great, except that we only visit every few years. When we visited Malaysia a year ago, my skills were almost up to scratch with my skills as a 15-year-old. Of course, I was terribly proud of myself.

When going anywhere with a group of Sri Chinmoy’s students, however, I have to eat humble pie (or, in Bulgaria, humble pie with fetta cheese and a side order of yoghurt). The majority of students, while they may politely claim to be impressed with my Indonesian skills, are themselves bilingual. Indeed, they are considerably more bilingual than I ever was.

If I was insincere enough, I’d have made “learn to speak Indonesian properly” one of my New Year’s resolutions – only to break it. A pity, because learning a language is very rewarding... even if you can already speak English.