by Henry E. Mattox
Our contributing editor recounts a linguistic adventure in an exotic mountain kingdom long ago. Sometimes one must make do with the bare essentials and hope for the best. — Ed.
The American writer Christopher Morley observed in a work published in 1925 that life is a foreign language. To support his assertion, in a sense, I offer an anecdote from my Foreign Service days many years ago in the Kingdom of Nepal. The occurrence described took place some forty years ago, before Maoist rebels made it dangerous to travel in or visit the remote western areas, those stunningly beautiful lands looking up to the looming Himalayas west of the historic village of Gorkha and not far from the mysterious fastness of the Mustang region. It was, and remains, a spectacular, little-frequented area of South Asia.
The story following depicts especially that scene in the particular period about which I write. The small American embassy in Kathmandu at that time shared its official presence with what was termed by some her “senior partner,” the USAID mission. The latter was considerably larger in structures and staffing, having been in-country a good bit longer than the embassy. (U.S. diplomatic relations long had been conducted from New Delhi by a nonresident ambassador.)
To cut to the chase in this story, the Foreign Service sent me there as a second secretary in the late summer of 1966; Ambassador Carol Laise, who had served previously in New Delhi, arrived as ambassador that same year, a bit later.
One aspect of the story needs to be set forth at this point. I had earlier studied at the Foreign Service Institute and served in French- and Portuguese-speaking countries, achieving the passable skill level of “3” (out of a possible “5”) in those two languages. A language whiz I was not, but I was taking an hour a day of Nepali language tutoring, starting from a level of zero upon my arrival. (Nepali, I might note, is an Indo-European language not totally divorced from remote ties with the languages that developed in Europe.)
About Ambassador Laise’s language skills I knew little or nothing, but I assumed she had some facility in Hindi from her earlier years in India. Mine not to reason why or to question her language skills in any case.
Not long after the ambassador’s arrival the deputy chief of mission and the AID director arranged an orientation trip for her to the western part of the country using USAID’s small contract helicopter. I disremember where it was exactly, but the site was a district headquarters under a governor appointed from Kathmandu. DCM Harry Barnes (later an ambassador at several posts and the director general of the Foreign Service) selected me to accompany the ambassador — not a very difficult choice, as I was the only other Foreign Service officer at the post at that time. Issuing me a minimum of instructions, he did mention that I might be called upon to translate for the ambassador in her call upon the governor.
That gave me pause although I said nothing much. But I thought: Was I really to translate Nepali after only a few weeks of embassy-sponsored tutoring? Gad. Don’t make me laugh.
But then I reminded myself Ambassador Laise probably spoke Hindi, a language that had some carryover to Nepali, or so I had heard. And anyway, all the officials I had any knowledge of in my limited experience at the post spoke English fluently; I had learned in my brief stay thus far in Nepal that many of them had British or U. S. university degrees. So off we went one beautiful, clear, sunny day.
Arriving by helicopter at the picturesque, small outpost of Nepali governance far west of Kathmandu, a village the name of which I disremember in a green, cultivated valley, we caused quite a local stir. Nevertheless, we were soon about our official business. The ambassador and I walked over from our landing site to pay an official call on the governor, who of course had been advised of Ambassador Laise’s arrival well in advance. He received us cordially in a setting outside his rustic official headquarters. We looked up at a white-topped towering mountain range to the north and out across green-bordered fields in a broad valley bearing stands of golden grain. No crowds of village people gathered around; either they had been chased off by local officials or went on their own accord to gaze at the helicopter and its pilot.
As I recall the sequence, the ambassador began with verbal pleasantries of greetings and thanks for our being received — and then looked to me. A bit surprised but striving not to show it, I looked to the governor, a most presentable gentleman of about forty years dressed in traditional Nepalese clothing, sitting on a bench to the right in our little group of three. He awaited me expectantly, not saying anything as yet.
My lord! I thought to myself, clearing my throat, trying to keep a straight face and to remain upright. Is this particular governor, I thought, the only one in the country who is not a graduate of Cambridge or UCLA? He evidently did not understand the ambassador’s English, and there I found myself in the posture and position of an interpreter, me with my towering “1” level, more or less, in spoken Nepali.
Unable to think of an escape, I stumbled through what must have been a more or less coherent all-purpose greeting in Nepali for the governor. I tried, with scant success, to take up about as much time as had the ambassador.
The governor smiled, nodded, and launched forth on his reply of several phrases, fortunately somewhat slowly enunciated, all directed toward the ambassador, of course. He then looked to me to pick up and carry the conversational ball. I had understood a few of his words here and there and was able to round them up into a communication in English for the ambassador that bore, probably, somewhat on the governor’s pronouncement. She replied in English at, fortunately, no great length. I understood English perfectly well, of course, but was obliged to call upon my scarce store of words and concepts in Nepali to translate her remarks. Or something related thereto, more or less.
I struggled with this charade for what seemed to me a long time but probably amounted to twenty minutes or so. Both Ambassador Laise and the governor were satisfied with what passed for an exchange of views. I found, perhaps not so surprisingly, as I recall now, that I had greater success in translating the governor’s comments; I could pick up his words here and there and contrive to embellish in English a fairly full set of remarks based on what I thought he probably had been talking about. It was decidedly more difficult on the other hand to put the ambassador’s comments into my scant Nepali vocabulary.
Finally, with dhanabad‘s (thank you’s) all around, we split up, the governor to return to his office a hundred yards distant and we, the ambassador and I, to sight-see for a while before returning via our helicopter to Kathmandu. I can recall today, decades later, only a few words in Nepali used that day in that odd and, for me, trying exchange: namaste — hello or good bye, pani — water, bhat — rice, ho — yes and hoina — no, plus tik chuh, meaning somewhat indeterminately maybe or could be. Finally, me Nepali bol chou — I speak Nepali. Or perhaps more appropriately, me Nepali bol china — I don’t speak Nepali. Little is left now except the memory and the long-lingering thought that the Nepalese governor might have been, after all, at least a graduate of an Indian university and perfectly fluent in English, but an official who stood on protocol by receiving the American ambassador in the language of the country, even though she was forced to use the services of an “interpreter” — me. I am thus brought to add the concluding part of the Morley quotation begun at the top of this account: “Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it.” Maybe so, but mispronouncing Nepali words was the least of my worries on that long-ago episode in Foreign Service life.
Henry Mattox, the journal’s contributing editor, was a Foreign Service officer from 1957 to 1980, serving in France, Portugal, Brazil, Nepal, Haiti, England, and Egypt, in addition to a couple of Washington assignments. After retiring from the Service to North Carolina, he entered academe, studying, writing, and teaching part time, a course of action that led to a Ph.D. in U.S. diplomatic history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986. He was editor of American Diplomacy from its founding in 1996 until July, 2007.