Understanding, Lost And Found in Translation

By Kayt Sukel
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 7, 2006

Alittle less than a year into my husband's tour of duty with the Army in Germany, I lay in a bed in the Kreißsaal (labor ward), hoping to delay our baby's birth as long as possible.

As I pulled books from the bag of distractions that my husband had brought to help pass the time, I found I had to brush a fine dusting of sand from each cover. The bag had been unused since his deployment to Iraq, its pockets still coated with the unintentional souvenir of a year I'd rather forget. By the time I wiped the fifth book clean, the baby decided he had had enough of life on the inside and switched residence to an incubator in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Our son's premature birth was difficult enough, but the communication barrier made things almost impossible. Each morning, after perusing the enigma that was his chart with my German-English dictionary, I'd go in search of the nurse assigned to us that day. And then, in a comic combination of hand gestures, pidgin "Germglish" and facial expressions, I'd try to glean my son's prognosis.

As I interrogated die Schwestern (nurses) at the level of a 4-year-old, they would look at me with exasperation when my choice of words failed to convey the intended meaning. My language studies had prepared me only for small talk about the weather and directions to the train station. I couldn't discuss my son's condition with any fluency.

After a week's sojourn in the Kinderklinik , instead of the usual round of caregivers, we were assigned a few nurses whose English, though not impeccable, could make do. The best of these was Sylvia, a friendly woman with dancing eyes, who spoke with a fluency and humor that immediately put me at ease, despite the wires and tubes that invaded my son's tiny body.

Sylvia took the time to help me understand the notations on the seemingly inscrutable hospital chart. On days when she was responsible for other patients, she would forgo her cigarette break to check up on us. And when the other nurses failed to comprehend my questions, she gladly acted as my champion, translating both my language and emotions without effort, using those critical words I seemed incapable of finding.

But most important, she treated us with utter kindness. As she cared for my baby, Sylvia would call him mein Schatz (my treasure) in a singsong voice, and it seemed to me that she truly meant it. And as I stood watch over him each day, she never failed to offer her assistance or stop by for a chat.

After a few weeks, it seemed there was nothing that Sylvia and I couldn't talk about. Astonishingly, our language differences seemed only to fuel conversation, our missteps directing us to topics we might not have found otherwise. And this gift, these innocuous discussions about music, travel and life, made me feel more at home in the sterile environment of the neonatal ICU.

One day, after a visit from my husband in uniform, Sylvia came in to check on my son.

"Your husband," she asked as she tested the baby's reflexes, "will he go to Iraq?"

It's a common enough question these days, but my husband's job and the war were among the few things that Sylvia and I had not talked about. I replied that he had just returned from deployment in Baghdad and probably would go back eventually.

"Ah," she said. "I am Iraqi, you know."

I did not know. Though Sylvia's dark hair and eyes didn't match the blond, blue-eyed stereotype of old, I had been in Germany long enough to see that Germans come in all shades and ethnicities. That she was of another nationality simply hadn't occurred to me.

As I listened to Sylvia speak of her homeland, I desperately wanted to ask her view of the war. Did she find America's actions in Iraq justified? Or did she condemn the fight, vilifying the policies executed by soldiers like my husband? I wanted to inquire, to start a dialogue, yet once again I could not find the words.

Part of me held back because I was afraid to somehow offend this woman who had so willingly stepped forward as my ally. I was frightened that by opening that particular Pandora's box I might alter our relationship for the worse, potentially affecting my son's care. But largely, I did not speak up because I knew I would be expected to reciprocate. I could not bring myself to enter a conversation that might lead me, a soldier's wife, to admit my reservations about the war and my husband's role in it.

Funny how during this time it was always the words that I could not say that had the most influence on my life: as a foreigner, as a new mother and as the wife of a soldier during a time of war.

As my son's first birthday approaches, I am planning to return to the Kinderklinik. I would like to donate some of his old clothes and, yes, to show him off. I have been studying my German dutifully in anticipation of this visit, learning the appropriate phrases to express my gratitude as well as discuss the advances in my baby's Entwicklung (development). In particular, I intend to thank Sylvia again for all of her kindnesses, and hopefully take her out for a drink.

Over a glass of wine, after we've traded our most recent histories and adventures, I would like to think I will finally take the opportunity to ask her thoughts on the war. But I know that I probably will not. Even after so much has been said and done, I find myself still hesitant, the courage and words still unfound.

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