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The Milk House: What’s actually lost in translation

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2017

“I would like a wurst,” I said in German.

The vendor’s face immediately changed. She now scowled. She pointed at the register and held up two fingers. I gave her a two-euro coin. She didn’t say thank you.

It wasn’t the first time my accent and sometimes pidgin-ish language skills shaped the reactions of German natives.

Bus drivers became gruffer, waitresses more annoyed and, although I’m not sure how they knew, I had the feeling that old people liked to ride by slowly on bicycles and stare at me in disgust.

The family of the German girl I was dating at the time asked her what was so wrong with her that she couldn’t find a German guy instead. Later, another girlfriend took me to meet her friends. One of them looked me over and said in German, “He doesn’t understand anything, does he?”

I did understand – and wish I was quick enough to both tell him that and call him a Hurensohn (don’t translate).

Living in a country that speaks a different tongue is a humbling experience. As you start to learn a new language, you feel like a child, mostly because you speak like one. Often, usually unconsciously, the people around you treat you like a child as well.

Germany is not a particularly racist country, and in fact tends to be both politically and socially more receptive to Americans. Still, there’s a part of human nature that causes us to react negatively toward someone who looks and sounds different than us.

Currently, I live in Ireland. I am a native speaker of their language, but my Italian girlfriend is not. Although she speaks English perfectly (as her third language), it is naturally with an accent.

Her IQ scores put her in the top percentage of the population, but I’ve seen plenty of people speak slowly and loudly to her. I brought her to the doctor’s office and, after introducing herself, he turned to me and said, “Good, you can translate for us.”

It took her months to find a new apartment to live in, as she was seldom granted a viewing after calling the proprietor.

I’ve always had the impression that the world was, in at least a general way, on the path of increasing tolerance. Each generation had been more progressive and less bigoted than the previous one.

There was a comfort in knowing that, despite still plenty of examples of hate crimes and discrimination, we as a group (humans) were heading toward the right place. However, the luxury of such assurances feels more fickle these days.

Increasing population, terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis have made the Western world nervous. North America and Europe are now rife with examples of politicians taking advantage of that fear and giving a willing translation that benefits their own careers.

Currently, hard-right nationalist parties such as The National Front (France) and Jobbik (Hungary) are surging through Europe using rhetoric that is based on hate, anti-Semitism and declarations that they are under threat by people who do not look like them.

Despite the leftover Jeffersonian ideals of agriculture being a wholesome act that brings people closer to God, the industry is also not without its culpability of prejudice.

As American farms grow larger, so does the employment of Hispanic labor. I’ve heard enough farmers talk about their Mexican employees in a way equivalent to Trump’s “locker room talk” to realize that cheap labor is sometimes accompanied with a cheap idea of humanity.

It is extremely difficult for farmers to travel abroad, both in terms of time and finances. Nonetheless, if there is one sentence that is a true fallacy, it’s this: Why would I go abroad when there’s so many things to see in my own country?

I know a lot of children of farmers who have studied or traveled overseas, and they said this: It changed their perspective. Not only does one realize that there are many different ways of approaching the same thing (from sink faucets to societal values), but it is an invaluable experience to be the “other.”

When you’re the person in the room that’s different and no longer has the sly assurance of the majority, it expands your humility. Suddenly you realize how fickle differences are between people, and their inability to look or sound like you means nothing toward who they are.

When a person participates in racism, whether overt or inherent, they give away a part of themselves. Perhaps worse, there’s always someone else willing to take that hate and use it for their own advantage.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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