It takes about 1,000 memorized words to hit the ground running with a new language, says Joshua Foer in The Guardian. But even then, there’s plenty that could be lost in translation. Foer talks about his experience with Bosco Mongousso, an Mbendjele pygmy in the Republic of Congo:
“I don’t know. It’s far away,” he told me finally, through a translator. According to Oxford anthropologist Jerome Lewis, the Mbendjele believe that the spirit world is inhabited by people with white skin. For them, the afterlife and Europe go by the same word, putu. “Amu dua putu” is a common euphemism for death – literally, “He’s gone to Europe.” For me to have come all the way to the Ndoki forest was a journey of potentially metaphysical dimensions.
“Have you ever heard of the United States of America?” I asked Mongousso.
He shook his head. “No.”
I didn’t know where to begin. “Well, the United States is like a really big village on the other side of the ocean,” I told him. The translator conveyed my explanation, and then had a back-and-forth exchange with Mongousso.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He wanted to know, ‘What’s the ocean?'”
Makes us wonder about the concepts we never consider as a result of the languages we think in.