on the need to narrate our catastrophes

Turner29Aleksandar Hemon at Lapham's Quarterly:

I’m of a staunch belief that anything that can be said and thought in one language can be thought and said in another. The words might have a different value or interpretative aura, but there is always more than enough overlapping not to dismiss the project of translation, which is essential not only to the project of literature, but to the project of humanity as well.

But then there is the Bosnian word kata­strofa, which, most obviously, comes from the same Greek word (katastrophe [καταστροφή], meaning overturning) as its English counterpartcatastrophe. But in Bosnian—or at least in the language my family uses—katastrofa has a substantially different value and applicability than catastrophe has in English. We use it all the time, deploying it in the contexts that would be less appropriate in English. My mother would thus reprimand my father by saying, “Ti si, ćale, katastrofa!” (translatable as: You, Pop, are a catastrophe!) because he left a trail of dirty socks all the way to the bedroom. Or my father, in his report on a pipe bursting in their house wall, would use katastrofa to refer to the necessity of digging through said wall to find the source of the leak. My sister, who lives in London, would describe the leaden January skies depressingly looming over England and her head as katastrofa. And I could apply katastrofa to, say, the inability of Liverpool FC to defend corner kicks, or to the realization that I’m in the bathroom without toilet paper and the nearest roll is a hallway away. One of the few Bosnian words Teri understands is katastrofa, mainly by way of hearing me bemoan various unfortunate turns of events.

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