I have translated words from one language to another. I speak Spanish fairly well yet I quickly discovered the difficulties of transforming the stern, engineering textbook phrases of my native tongue into the soft, beautiful paragraphs of a Romance language. I felt as if I was painting a sunset in autumn on a New England forest with a palette of eight crayons. I was similarly troubled converting Spanish to English. My translations appeared to impart a clarity on intent and meaning that was never present in the original.
I am having the same trouble translating the experiences that I had in Iraq to my family, friends and readers. Whether verbally or in writing, English doesn't give me the necessary tools the describe what I saw, felt, heard, smelled or tasted.
In the February 5th "New Yorker" Ryszard Kapuscinski, a "legendary travel writer", wrote of his first trip abroad in 1956, when he traveled from his native Poland to India. He returned home chastened by the experience. "India was my first encounter with otherness, the discovery of a new world. It was at the same time a great lesson in humility. I returned from that journey embarrassed by my own ignorance. I realized then what seems obvious now: another culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand. One has to prepare oneself thoroughly for such an encounter."
In the fall of 2002, I found myself suddenly reassigned to an Army Reserve unit alerted to prepare for deployment to Iraq. I had never been to the Middle East nor had I read much about it. I had spent the previous twenty years learning Spanish and traveling to almost every country in Latin America. Despite having lived in Colombia, and then returning on numerous visits, and despite having learned their language, with the dialects and different regional viewpoints, I knew enough about Colombia to fully grasp how much I really didn't know.
Although I lived in Kuwait for two months and Iraq for ten, and I made an effort to learn the language and read numerous books about the region's geography and culture and religion, I still have no idea what I don't know about that country. I suspect that the Rosetta Stone for all this may lie in fiction, that a novel may indirectly convey what I want to say.
Whether a populace that actually cares about the life history of Anna Nicole Smith will want to read what I have written is another story.