I first came across the notion of the ‘hyphenated Ethiopian’ in Taffara Deguefe’s ‘Minutes of an Ethiopian Century.’
Ato Taffara talks of Ethiopians returning to their homeland after studies abroad. They feel in opposition to, or divided from their homeland because of their exposure to another culture. They feel they possess two antagonistic natures, Ethiopian and ‘other.’
And that was forty years ago!
But in today’s world, in today’s Ethiopia, more and more people are hyphenated – where we used to be Ethiopian or German or Italian, we now possess dual or triple identities and speak different languages/cultures at home, in the workplace, and use different codes and imported mores and customs that we pick and choose from.
We are Ethio-American, Franco-British, or Luso-Indian.
I’m an interpreter/translator, by profession – which is true enough, as that’s how I put my family’s daily injera on the table, but really interpreting/translating is much more than that ‘just’ a profession to me. To me interpreting is about understanding people/individuals/cultures/countries and seeing how they make sense – to me and to other people, those famous others who don’t get what the other others mean/say/want or why these others are so ‘complicated,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘culturally backward’ or ‘plain stupid.’
But don’t forget: we’re always the other of some other other.
I moved to France from England when I was six years old and found that not only was every other an other whom I didn’t understand when they opened their mouths but also that these others did everything in slightly different ways – not only when it came to speaking but also eating, laughing, moving, dressing – I found myself lost in translation.
But children adapt and soon I could eat, laugh, and walk the talk of a Frenchman – and to this day, although born in the UK to British parents I am also a Frenchman (which is why I like to say that at 40 I have 34 years of experience as an interpreter!).
The best interpreters are schizophrenic: they can see the world from two vantage points turn in turn – in quick succession.
I’ve now been living in Ethiopia for 12 years, but really what I’ve been doing is interpreting & translating Ethiopia/Ethiopians for that long – because it’s much more difficult as an adult to understand what’s going on around you in a new culture.
The Bible speaks of the leopard not being able to change its spots anymore than the Ethiopian can change the colour of his skin (Jeremiah 13:23) – and I really like that sentence because it speaks of the impossibility of completely shedding what makes you what you are, of losing your identity – once you’re an adult that is. But you can still merge identities over time, and take on different hues, different accents.
The French, the stereotype goes, are ornery, difficult and fun. The English, in turn, are tightfisted and not much fun but can run a tight ship. So that makes this (Franco-British) interpreter arrogant and fun, tightfisted and freewheeling – that is to say very confused! Can the English tabby cat lose its spots or the French dog change coats for the day?
Ethiopians are proud. That’s a stereotype too, but I think everybody can agree with that – although some would see arrogance rather than pride, but every quality has a flip side. And after ten years seeking to interpret Ethiopia, I think I understand a few things about the country (like using the word pride instead of arrogance when describing Ethiopians).
I used to like to think of myself as being Franco-British. That is to say hyphenated in some way along Taffara Deguefe’s definition (hyphenated being to schizophrenic what pride is to arrogance).
But I’ve gotten worse over the years: I’m now 1/3 French, 1/3 English and 1/3 Ethiopian – but for all that I am no longer lost but found in translation.
In today’s world we are all hyphenated and a hyphen is now a way to link and not to separate intertwined identities.