Sunday, May 25, 2014

On (corporate) mothers and daughters

Business language has its peculiarities, including expressions that only make sense to those who use it daily.  One interesting example is the description of that slave-like relation between the controlling company and the controlled company, .i.e. when one company owns 100% of another company.  Curiously, there seems to be slight but meaningful differences between languages on how to describe this relationship.

English refers to the company owning the shares as the parent company, reflecting the fact that non-animate nouns do not have a gender in English.  By contrast, since the word for company is feminine in Hebrew and French, the parental relationship is expressed through the mother with a small difference, i.e. חברת אם [hevrat em], mother company, in Hebrew and maison mère, mother house, in French.  Spanish assumes the blood connection and  emphasizes the main point, the power, using  empreza matriz, meaning master or founding company, derived from the word for womb. Russian, for some unknown reason, opts to express all the options, i.e. компания-учредитель [kompaniya uchhyeditel], компания владеющая [kompaniya vladtyushaya], материнская компания [materinskaya kompaniya], and родительская компания [roditelskakya kompaniya], meaning founding, leading, mother, and parental company, respectively.

On the other side of the coin, English refers to the owned company as a subsidiary, from the Latin subsidiarius meaning help or support.  Spanish follows this lead, referring to such a company as a subsidiara. Keeping with the parental connection, Russians and Israeli treat their subsidiaries as daughers, using the terms дочерная компания [doshernaya firma] and חברת בת  [hevrat bat], respectively.  The French call it a filiale, which is linked to the Latin word for son, but generally refers to children in general. 

If Turgenev about physical fathers and sons, who will write a book about mothers and daughters of the legal body variety?

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Foreign Feeling

Millions of people have immigrated as adults to countries whose official language is different from theirs.  The minute they say they open their mouths, people identify them as foreigners, regardless of how many years they have lived in that country.  As a personal example, my mother has lived in the United States for over 60 years while I am in Israel for 25 years.  We are still foreigners and identified as such.  Our experience applies to the millions of immigrants around the world.

Israelis are very accepting of immigrants since almost everybody is not more than a generation or two removed from that status.  Still, without intending to offend, some Israelis treat non-natives in frankly annoying ways. For example, they significantly slow down their speech and use overly simple words, as if we are small children with limited understanding. In other cases, they switch to my native tongue, English, not even giving me a chance to prove that I know Hebrew. The most annoying comment I have received is “You still have an accent.”  Most people who immigrated as adults keep their native accent to one degree or another, without any connection to their knowledge of the language.  Henry Kissinger was a good example of that.

Other attitudes don’t bother me.  I have no problem with a mortgage counselor reminding me to ask if I have any question. Even native Israelis have problem with legal/banking language, incidentally my specialization in translating. I don’t mind friends correcting my Hebrew mistakes.  Otherwise, how would I improve my language?   I find it completely natural to ask a native speaker to review anything I write in Hebrew.  I want to make a good impression and know that pride has a heavy price.  So, I ask my wife to edit my Hebrew.

So, for most immigrants who came as adults, the second language never completely becomes the first language.  We have our mistakes, hesitations, and accents, which nothing to do with our intelligence or knowledge of the language itself.  As Aretha Franklin sang so well, all immigrants want R E S P E C T.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Who's got that holiday feeling?

What is a holiday feeling?  To people born, raised and living in the same country all their lives, the emotions and rituals associated with each holiday, whether anticipated or dreaded, are part of the flow of the year and to a certain degree obvious.  However, to expatriates, foreign residents, and other culturally confused people, there is no obvious emotional connection.

I was raised Jewish and have lived in Israel for 25 years.  Yet, my manner of experiencing the national and religious holidays of Israel is different from Sabras.

I grew up in an atheist Jewish house.  To explain that apparent contradiction, my parents did not practice or believe in Judaism, but insisted on building my Jewish awareness through a minimal Jewish education, active identification with being Jewish, and basic holiday rituals, specifically Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Pesach.  Therefore, at least for those three holy days, I experienced their rhythm.   Granted, fasting on Yom Kippur meant only not eating, not as in Israel where it means not eating and drinking.  As for the rest of the Jewish holidays, they mean nothing to me, including the joy of Purim, the ecstasy of Shevuot, or the mourning of Tisha b’Av.  These days are emotionally ordinary days, not special days as they are for religious Jews.

In terms of national holidays, I did not grow up here.  Israeli is going through its week-long catharsis consisting of the Holocaust Memorial Day, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and Independence Day.  As my mother was in Europe during the war and lost her father, among others, the first does have meaning, even if I am slightly ambivalent about the endless run of depressing movies and documentaries.  In terms of the Memorial Day for soldiers, I did not serve in the military.  Moreover, I have never known anybody who died in a war.  My father was wounded twice in World War II, but luckily came home safe and sound.  So, I have no one to remember on this day. It is a heavy day in terms of the national feeling, but without specific thoughts for me.  Tomorrow is Independence Day in Israel.  The feeling of wonder and excitement of being a country that characterized this holiday in the early years of the country is gradually disappearing.  Instead, almost every Israeli takes part in a mass feeding frenzy of barbecued meat.  That reminds me of July 4, without the Boston Pops and Soussa marches of course.  So, I can relate to the national experience. 

As I once said to my parents, I have the privilege of being able to live in three different societies (US, France, and Israel) without belonging 100% to any of them.  In terms of holidays, being socially confused makes you an outsider on holidays.  It is a bit like being an only child: not a tragedy but a situation.  I just have a different holiday feeling.