every day i open my mouth and embarrass myself
Vsak dan študiram slovenščino. Slovenski jezik je izjemno zahteven. Nisem zelo dobro v tem. Vem malo, razumem manj. Moji staveki so preprosti. Naredim veliko napak. (Zdaj naredim napak, sem preprična.) Ampak vztrajam. Moram vztrajati. Zakaj? To je res, učiti se pomeni boriti se. Vsak dan.
Torej mora biti ljubeče dejanje.
Every day, I study Slovene. The Slovene language is immensely difficult. I am not very good at it. I know little, and understand less. My sentences are simple. I make many mistakes. (Right now I am making mistakes, I am certain.) But I persevere. I have to persevere. Why? It is true, to learn is to struggle. Every day.
Therefore it must be a loving act.
Recently, CyclingNews published an article titled “Primoz Roglic 'stands by words' accusing Fred Wright over Vuelta crash.” I’m sure you can tell by the headline that this is typical off-season fare, taking another interview and republishing it for a quick click. We all do this, I won’t pretend I haven’t done it myself.
There’s one problem, however: Roglič never once mentioned Wright in the cited interview, nor was he ever asked about Wright.
In a lengthy discussion with Radio Slovenia Channel 2 about his 2022 season, triple Vuelta a España winner Roglic was quoted by interviewer Igor Tominec as saying about the crash: "I still stand by my words."
Roglic did not make it 100 per cent clear in the interview which "words" he was referring to, but his most high-profile public reference to the crash came in a press release for Jumbo-Visma where he roundly blamed British rider Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) for the fall…And in the Slovenian radio interview, responding to Tominec’s observation that he "reacted emotionally like never before after that last crash", Roglič reportedly commented: "I was asking myself if it was necessary to say or write anything. But then in the end why always be silent?
"I just wanted to express that I want to race in an atmosphere of fair play. That was my point…”
For CyclingNews to use in their headline such an incendiary verb as “accuse” one would think they listened to or understood the cited 45 minute audio interview or even ripped a translation off of the later-published write-up. (The link used in the piece as a form of citation is merely to VAL 202’s main website — also note the use of “reportedly.”) But neither is true. The information cited in the article instead comes from a Twitter thread Tominec posted for English-speaking fans taken from his own rough translation of what transpired.
CyclingNews writes: “Roglič did not make it 100 percent clear in the interview…” The thing is, in the interview itself, it was clear what Roglič spoke about. He was referring to the part of the press release where he teamed up with his boss Richard Plugge in a broader call for safety in the peloton. Colleagues informed me that later in the interview Roglič went on to have a brief conversation with Tominec about the nuances of having made that statement in a sport where one isn’t really allowed to be angry or negative. Not once in the conversation was the crash itself relitigated or blame reassigned. Is Roglič’s a satisfying answer? No. If anything, it’s a typically, frustratingly evasive one. In this respect, he should have done better. But is his response one of persistent, petty bitterness, the kind indicating a feud? Absolutely not.
Igor Tominec is a colleague I know well and have conversed with in English many times. But he is not a translator and should not be expected to be one, especially for free. He provided the translated thread as a courtesy (he knows many fans don’t speak Slovene and can’t listen to the actual interview) as well as to retain some control over how his work would be dispersed. All journalists do such things to increase the engagement and spread of their most important articles on social media. Tominec later replied to CyclingNews on Twitter expressing his disappointment with how his work was misused. But by this time, everyone had seemingly moved on. Clicks were had, obscenities were thrown about on behalf of one party or another (often with nationalistic overtones), and the Twitter content mill continued churning as usual interspersed with post-Musk ads for t-shirts from something called “HorseLove.com”
Whether one thinks Roglič was correct in making what to most seemed to be a routine racing incident about “safety” in his press release (I myself publicly went on the record saying the whole thing felt like a canard) is irrelevant to my point. My point is that it is irresponsible for a publication to “cite” an interview they did not listen to nor could even understand.
I understand that journalists cross-translate each others’ work and interviews for web-based publications. It’s one of the more murky and unlikable parts of modern publishing. But unlike the common “cycling” languages of Dutch, French, Spanish, or Italian, no one in English-speaking journalism speaks Slovenian. Instead of tackling this problem by sourcing out or retaining a translator, the overwhelming workarounds have consisted of only speaking to Slovenian riders in English or, if unable to do so, copying Slovenian written media into Google Translate or DeepL. I know this is true because I myself have been told it is acceptable.
I won’t go so far as to call this journalistic malpractice, but it does show a certain laziness and lack of desire for truth and nuance, both of which are inherently embedded in language. If one takes Pogačar’s loss in the Tour as evidence that the Slovenian moment is slowing down, then it will have soon passed without a single serious undertaking to both understand and work with — not in spite of — another language for over half a decade. This, to me, is very sad.
Many of you have asked me what I’ve been doing since the Vuelta. The answer is I’ve been learning Slovenian in formal classes. My learning Slovenian is part of my deep, personal, and sincere commitment to not only to cycling but to my friends and colleagues. It also comes from a desire to be a global citizen paired with the ex-pat’s natural aversion to being the pesky asterisk in any given social situation. But without a real love for others, of literature, and a dedication to the pursuit of language as an act in itself, let me tell you, you will find precious little to pursuade you to learn a language this fucking difficult.
If you are coming from a language like English or Spanish, Slovenian does not make any intuitive sense. There are some cognates, yes, but the very structure of the language is so vastly different and so hugely nuanced that when one learns even a fraction of it, one realizes that the machine translation writers and fans have become reliant on in our international sport is the equivalent of trying to facet a diamond with a hammer and chistle.
Machine translation tricks us into believing that languages seem easier than they are and that words have a one-to-one direct equivalency between languages. It allows us to forego an attempt at real comprehension and thus gives us a false sense of connectedness. With the advent of machine learning, translation is no longer viewed as a necessary art, nor as a conduit between two cultures, their people, and the meanings — both obvious and subtle — of words. It is instead presented as a problem, a nuisance for technology to solve. We have forgotten that it is humbling not to know and necessary to trust others with helping us.
Perhaps even more sad is that with machine translation, there is no longer privacy in nor respect for the written words of other languages. Only in speaking and listening do we have the precious right to not be misunderstood in this way simply because we can’t be understood to begin with. English, our technological world’s lingua franca, possesses its old colonialist expectation to be universally known, so much so that it cannot comprehend the distinct pleasure of being unknown.
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For myself and many other dedicated language learners, regardless of level, there is great satisfaction in reconciling the nuances between what one knows and what one does not. To me this exchange is fascinating and extraordinary. I feel as though every step of learning is like a little box that surrounds me. A fence, if you will, denoting what I am able to say correctly. I, however, am impatient. I want to say more than I am able to. I step out of the box and I make mistakes. Publicly. Often on Twitter.
I have made more mistakes learning Slovene than in any other endeavor ever undertaken by me in this life, including love, human relationships, career changes, and mathematics. I humiliate myself frequently and amuse others with my perhaps endearing incompetence. The language makes me small. It cuts to the core of my ego. One day it will forgive me, but not today, not tomorrow, and probably not for years to come. I began my learning with an acceptance of this. If I did not accept this, I would not be able to learn because making mistakes would quickly become personal and thus unbearable.
Our teacher knows her students are making mistakes. We are not so much learning a language as we are slowly putting discrete unfathomable pieces together and revising each mistake at a time. Less like class, more like a sensitive archaeological dig. This mistake-correction-mistake linguistic pathfinding is necessary with Slovene, a language that has six grammatical cases. (Modern English has two or three depending on who you ask, and each case is limited only to its pronouns, not the ending and structure of every single word in a sentence.)
Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about. If I want to build a sentence in Slovene, say, I have a big house, I have to think forward and backwards within the sentence. The verb to have is imeti. It is a fourth-case verb (in our current box of restriction) meaning the endings of nouns change in specific ways. Imeti is irregular, the first person singular present-tense is imam. House, hiša, is a feminine noun. In the fourth case present tense, the endings of the singular feminine noun and its attendent adjectives change from -a to -o. Imam hišo. Imam veliko hišo.
But there’s more. Slovene, unlike English, affixes other endings in the fourth case to denote whether we are talking about a living thing, specifically an animal or person. It considers, grammatically, the very essence of life. If I want to say I see the actor Brad Pitt, I say, Gledam igralca (from igralec, actor) Brada Pitta. Not to be confused with igralko (from igralka, actress) Angelino Jolie. Does your brain hurt yet? Good.
In addition, Slovene is one of the only languages to possess a first-person plural denomination for only two people. This is called the dual. To me, the dual, even in its most quotidian uses is immensely beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful aspect of Slovene, or maybe of any language. Take the most important and simple verb, biti, to be, in the first person plural. In English, regardless if I am talking about me and a group of friends having drinks at a bar or just me and one other person walking alone together at night in deep and intimate conversation, I use the term: We are. We are together. (An oft-quoted line from Whitman highlights the sparse, ambiguous English intimacy of we: We were together / I forget the rest.)
In Slovene, me and my friends are together. Jaz in moji prijatelji smo skupaj.
But what if now we’re all going home, our separate ways? What if, amidst the rainy silence of late-night autumnal Ljubljana, just me and you are together? You wouldn’t say Jaz in ti smo skupaj. You would instead say something so much better: Midva sva skupaj. The two of us are together.
We-two and only we-two, are together.
At my desk, I feed the machine translator, in English: We are together. It gives me Mi smo skupaj. I feed the machine Midva sva skupaj. It gives me “We are together.” It does not and cannot discern this most simple yet extraordinary difference. It does not care. It is a machine doing math. It does not pretend otherwise, but because it uses words, we perceive in its output a kind of false anthropomorphic equivalency. Siri telling us with her awkward jittery voice, we are together.
Perhaps, in the practical sense of getting bullshit cycling quotes into a quick article, this difference between mi smo and midva sva does not matter.
But in the sense of life, in the sense of genuine understanding — which is to say, the human sense — it does. It just does.
Derailleur mandates the use of translators for languages writers do not themselves speak as a part of our fact checking process. Both as a freelancer and for my personal work, I commission a handful of translators. I have refrained from quoting from the Slovene MMC article about the Roglič interview because it is still in the process of being translated.
I so like how you write, as well as what you write about. Not too many places you can get a (shallow) deep dive into the intersection of cycling and language and being a foreigner with a heart. I only say shallow to encourage you to keep going in this vein. It is really a pleasure supporting your work.
This is fabulous--thoughtful and thorough.