Power of love in any language

I was working late at night on a news feature when a message popped up on my computer, from a long-distance friend in Australia.

"Corrrrieeeeee!" he exclaimed.

"It's 12.43am," I typed, grumpy and sleepy, "I'm going to bed."

"Oh! Go to bed," he said, "I'll text you later. I wanted to get some help with writing a speech in Mandarin to my mum for my wedding."

I sat up straight in my chair, suddenly revived. My friend, who is ethnically Chinese, grew up in Australia speaking perfect English while his Singaporean mother spoke to him only in Mandarin. She would send him texts in hanyu pinyin which he would then decipher.

I would hardly call myself effectively bilingual, but my Mandarin has served me well enough to watch plays in Mandarin without usually needing surtitles and to occasionally conduct interviews with Mandarin-speaking artists - well, only after hours of painstaking preparations and an English-Chinese dictionary (read: Google Translate) for tricky specialist terms.

But to translate a thank-you speech for a wedding? I felt a sudden rush of nervousness after yelling "yes!" - what happens when you try to communicate the depths of love in a language you can speak but that you have not yet made your own?

A few days later, he sent me a short but tender paragraph thanking his mum profusely for all she had done and concluding with: "I appreciate all the time and tears you have poured into my life and I can only hope I'm able to give D. (his wife) even a fraction of the love and care you have shown me. I love you, mum. Thank you."

I sometimes translate e-mail or telephone interviews I've conducted from Mandarin to English. It is usually an interesting intellectual challenge rather than an emotional one, an exercise in matching tone of voice and precision of meaning, in ensuring that what I am quoting in print is as faithful to our conversation as possible.

Doing the reverse, however, had a strangely emotional bent. I didn't have a large vocabulary to draw from and phrases I was looking for did not come immediately to mind.

The British writer Taiye Selasi, who speaks Italian as a second language, sometimes writes for the magazine GQ Italia and she has observed that her shallower grasp of Italian vocabulary means that she is more economical and more direct with her words; her comfortable grasp of English might have allowed her to dodge the subject with all sorts of poetic digressions and ambiguities. She viewed what could have been an obstacle as a new approach to writing.

It took me about 45 minutes to translate a simple paragraph, turning the words over in my head and replacing terms to figure out which worked best. Some textured English turns of phrase didn't have quite the same ring in Mandarin, so I opted for the route Selasi would have taken - out with the flowery language, in with the action verbs. And to my surprise, I found myself tearing up at simple sentences. "Thank you for all the sacrifices you have made for me." "I don't know how I could ever thank you for all the time and tears you have given to me."

As someone who relies on words for a living, in crafting the perfect sentence and the most compelling story, I think I often forget about what it means to write simply and honestly.

My translated prose was hardly elegant. My sentence structure was straightforward and staccato. I don't think anything I've written in Mandarin will ever make its way into publication and I highly doubt I will ever be able to pursue a career in translation.

But I find that it is often when we are inarticulate that our voice and body communicate what language cannot. My friend told me later that while he was reading the speech, friends of his who did not speak a shred of Mandarin burst into tears.

And his mother? Well, she spent the entire speech correcting his pronunciation under her breath. But I was glad that, if anything, I had a tiny role to play in one of the most important days of her life. Auntie - your son loves you very much.

corriet@sph.com.sg