If you haven’t noticed yet, I am bilingual. Now, for some of you fluent only in the language in which I am writing these words, my condition may seem like something simply AWESOME. Thank you, you can stop applauding me now. Yes, yes, I’m fantastic, I know. But seriously, stop, you’re making me blush.
Just for a moment, though, let’s instead talk about you, the language underachiever, the occasional tourist in non-English speaking lands where you’ve always felt the natives were laughing at you. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of waking up one day and suddenly finding one more language permanently taking residence inside those deep recesses of your brain you know you still must have. Maybe you’re really sorry now that you didn’t pay more attention in school when they tried to cram your head with all that incomprehensible Spanish grammar. Maybe you’ve always resented your parents for not letting you participate in that fantastic student exchange program that would have opened you up to all the splendors of the French language (and lifestyle, of course) way back when you were just a carefree teenager. Maybe all those things are true about you. And maybe now I’ve made you feel really crappy about your whole existence. Have I? If so, I’m glad. Because, truly, is life worth living in only one tongue? Isn’t that the same as always wearing the same exact shirt or always eating the same exact lunch? I would think speaking only one’s native language is much like being color blind. Imagine living surrounded by unbelievable, mind-blowing colors and being cursed with defective eyes that will never allow you to enjoy the world in the fullness of its splendor.
But, for all that… I’ll be honest, I have sometimes resented having this bilingual superpower.
Look, don’t get me wrong; it is pretty cool being able to speak, read, and write in two totally unrelated languages equally well. But there are times when my bilingual condition is more a curse than a cool advantage. Occasionally I find that I can’t think of a Serbian word commonly used for, say, a popular fruit. In those cases I stealthily insert an English word into my otherwise Serbian sentence as casually as I possibly can. Sometimes people don’t really notice (probably because they’re not listening to me in the first place), and sometimes they do. When they do detect an unintelligible foreign word in the middle of my up to that point perfectly comprehensible Serbian story and look at me as if I’ve got a giant booger hanging off the tip of my nose, I drop on them my unfailing go-to disclaimer, “I’ve lived abroad, damn it, I can’t help this!” That shuts them right up; usually. Occasionally a friend will knock some sense back into me by smacking me right upside the head. Mild violence works on me just as well as it did on those old TVs one used to have to slap in order to change from channel 2 to channel 3.
At times being bilingual is like having a rare form of dyslexia. My brain is always in danger of turning into some kind of primordial mush. I dream in two languages. I think in two languages. I write e-mails in two languages; sometimes at the same time. Often I come up with a fantastic idea in Serbian and express it in English, only to find that English is a language with a curious power to make my fantastična ideja sound bland, commonplace, and just plain stupid. It works the other way around too. I’ve come up with some truly killer jokes in English; I mean, to piss your pants funny. In Serbian these jokes usually sound dumb and nonsensical. They rarely even elicit that polite little laugh people give you when they think you’re off your rocker, but they’d rather not say anything that might set fire to your infamous short fuse. Need a dinner party destroyed and your guest made to feel uncomfortable? Invite me. My bilingual superpower has opened some amazing employment opportunities. I’m currently working as a professional party pooper. Weekend job, extra income and all that, you know.
Now, if any of you out there want to be just like me (and I just know all of you do), here’s a quick and easy way to achieve bilingualism. Pay attention, now, this is important stuff.
Introducing Google Translate for all of you stuck living life in one language only. Google Translate brings the best translators from around the world, working in dozens of languages (simultaneously, apparently), all committed to giving everyone in the world a chance to become instantly multilingual. As I kid I believed there were little people living inside my grandparents’ radio. These tiny beings sang, talked and read out bits of news whenever they were prompted by a small twist of the dial. The rest of the time they sat in the dark inside the bulky radio, keeping as quiet as they possibly could and eavesdropping on my grandparents’ lives (boring affair, I assure you). I am a grown-up now and I know perfectly well there are no little people living inside radios; or televisions, for that matter. I do believe that there are miniature creatures living inside my Internet/Google. They are just like Santa’s Little Elves, except not so creepy. Their dress code is not Friday-casual (no flip-flops, ever!). Rather, suits and ties, usually branded (Hugo Boss cuts a nice suit, I hear), and Italian leather shoes are the order of the day for them. They come in to work through the USB openings on our computers, and they spend all day crouched somewhere inside (“Being John Malkovich” style), punching out stupid translations to our stupid requests. But really, do you truly give a crap how to say “What time does the sun rise?” in Latin?!
Here’s comes my rant. I promise, we’ll have some fun as soon as I’m done writing this next paragraph. Or the one after that.
As a job candidate for employment opportunities requesting higher education (college, BA or higher) and a firm/fluent grasp of some foreign language (usually English), I stand a great chance of getting a decent salary at one of the foreign-owned firms operating out of Belgrade. I stand no chance whatsoever of even making it through the first round of a job interview when along with me the potential employer tests a dozen snot-nosed kids who think attending university is about as essential as learning how to hula-hoop. These are the same pimple-faced teenagers who use Google Translate as a sorry excuse for actually SPEAKING a foreign language. Next time I have a chance, I plan to beat up one of these little cunts taking away MY legitimate job opportunity. After I’m finished beating the living lights out of one of them, I’ll take a look at his/her CV, just to confirm that in the language section, instead of listing those tongues they’re actually capable of speaking on at least some basic level, they have bombastically and boldly typed in “Google Translate,” which covers any contingency. “Can you speak Spanish?” Sure, Google Translate. “Can you speak Mandarin?” Sure, Google Translate. “Do you know how to read Russian?” Sure, Google Translate. “How are you with C++?” Terrific, Google Translate!
Google Translate is not a language! Having Google Translate on your overpriced smart phone doesn’t mean you can actually SPEAK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE! Hey, shit-for-brains, if you think you can keep me from my hard-earned job advancement by impressing the employer by throwing around some well-rehearsed movie dialogue and leaving the rest up to your Google friend, you got another thing coming. And if you do get that job that should rightfuly be mine, good luck to you when you find yourself negotiating a deal with that German manufacturer of small bicycle screws, and all you’ve got to fall back on is your Google translator (let’s hope he’s not on his lunch break) and your meager memory of Bruce Willis movie lines. Yipikaye, mother fucker! Translate that!
Aaaaaaaaaah… It’s alright, passengers, I’m calm now.
Here’s the really sad thing. Google Translate is actually really good. I don’t know how the Google geniuses (genii?) did this, but it does what it’s supposed to. And I have tried to break it by giving it nearly impossible things to translate from Serbian into English, and vice versa. There is, I’m convinced, some snarky Serbian kid sitting in a tiny Google office somewhere in Googleland, laughing to himself, thinking, “Come on, beingserbian.wordpress.com, bring it on!” Everything I threw at him, even total nonsense, he threw right back at me. He translated cuss words, he translated obscure folk wisdoms, he translated dyslexic gibberish that would blow up even Noam Chomsky’s brain. Hey, it ain’t perfect, but it sure works better than flipping the pages of Webster’s Pocket Edition. I am sincerely impressed.
Congratulations, Google, for inventing a translator to replace every language teacher in every corner of the world. Goodbye, boring Italian grammar lessons. Goodbye, tedious etymology exercises. Goodbye, linguistics, we don’t need you anymore.
There is one thing, however, Google didn’t manage to translate. It’s a sentence as well as a feeling.
Ma, nosi se, bre!