The difference between the right word and almost the right word, Mark Twain once told the world, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. By the look of things, Heather had just swallowed a horde of lightning bugs.
Heather shook her head as she looked away from her reading material, torn between hilarity and disgust. “There has got to be a better way of saying ‘on the move’ than that. I mean, it’s just … just wrong!”
A little background may be in order here. Heather, like millions of people across the internet, decided to jump feet first into Duolingo. She wanted a fresh start that would keep her brain busy, so rather than resume her long-ago college pursuit of German ( from which she mostly retains “The window is dirty”), she instead went after French.
Funny thing. When you’re home a lot due to chronic illness, you wind up with a lot of time to spend on language lessons. A few months ago, she felt confident enough in her reading comprehension to try children’s books. So she found some old favorites in translation, the ones that she knew as well as her childhood phone number.
That’s a great way to navigate an unfamiliar road. But it also means that the potholes can be really jarring. And one such dip in the road came when The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe portentously declared that Aslan was “en route.”
In the original English, the phrase is “Aslan is on the move.” Heather loves the feel of that phrase – the sense of something coming, of life waking up, of expectation and possibility and change. You could even see it as the opening of a chess game, the unfolding of a strategy that is just now beginning to show itself.
By contrast, to hear that Aslan is “en route” sounds like a package is coming from Federal Express. Definite. Predictable. Decidedly non-mystical. “Yo, I’m on my way, see you in about 15!”
Maybe that sounds a little finicky. But words matter. Even when they technically mean the same thing, they carry a different weight. As the writer Terry Pratchett knew, there is a hilarious difference between calling your epic tale “Gone With The Wind” and “Blown Away.”
The dictionary wouldn’t care. But we know better. What we say isn’t necessarily what someone else hears.
That matters to all of us. Not just the translators.
It means peeling back assumptions and old habits, and fitting yourself into someone else’s experience.
It means hearing stories that might not be comfortable, going places you haven’t been, learning how life and the world works for someone who isn’t you.
It means examining your mental picture like an engineer scrutinizing a design, trying to see what’s been left out – or maybe, should never have been put in.
It’s not easy. And we’re not going to get it right all the time.
But making the effort means a wider, more caring, more interesting world. It means living with chords rather than monotones, a library instead of a worn-out book, a rich and varied playlist instead of a track perpetually caught on a single earworm.
It means we actually hear each other. And help each other. That we become harder to fool with fears and hatreds because we’ve caught a glimpse of the wonder that may wait behind.
That’s worth it. Every time.
Listen well. New worlds await, and not just Narnia or Hogwarts. Maybe they’re still far off, but have no fear.
They’ll soon be en route.