Before I begin this article I just want to point you toward an excellent blog on English language. If you are at all interested in English linguistics or speech, take a moment and visit!
When you live abroad, if you’re like me, you become a chameleon. That means you dress, speak, act, and become like those who are surrounding you. Sometimes I think I do it because I think people who are not me are cool, and other times I think I do it for the security. Whatever the reason, as an expat my approach is to dive in headfirst and do my best to leave my American identifiers far, far behind me.
How do I do this? Well, predominantly I try to learn the language. Besides being a great way to blend in, language gives you intimate insights into these culture that you find yourself in. Plus, when you really begin to speak a language your mindset shifts and you begin to live your life through a different lens.
With a shift in language automatically comes a shift in perspective. You can’t help it. Languages don’t often say the same thing even though they mean the same. Are you confused yet? Welcome to my world. However, my question remains, how do you translate the sentiment behind words?
There are two parts to translating. You have to say what you mean, but also mean what you say. Often times, literal translation just won’t cut it. If you heard a literal translation from Spanish that “El vaso se rompió,” you would hear, “The glass broke itself.”
If you are a native English speaker, the idea that an inanimate object can damage itself probably didn’t compute. That is because, as English speakers, we like to know causative agents. “Who broke the glass,” we might ask since a glass obviously cannot break itself. If you never received this clarification, however, you may come to the conclusion that the glass was broken on accident since there is no one attached to the action, but that would take you inferring what the intention of the author was.
All this word crafting takes a certain amount of brain gymnastics. You have to decide what is being said, how it’s being said, and why it’s being said. There is no inherent better or worse way to say something. It just speaks to the context in which a culture evolved and how they see the world. And one you speak their language, you tend to see the world their way too.
The question eventually becomes, when you relate your stories to your friends and family, are they really the same as you had experienced? To tell about all that you saw, smelled, tasted, and felt you translate those feelings not only from emotions to words, but from one language to another.
How do you convey the meaning of a cric into English? A jack just doesn’t have the same visceral emotion supporting it, which takes away from the story about that time you changed your tires on the side of the road.
How do you describe ir de flor en flor to your best friend? Being a tease just doesn’t grab the same sense of flitting interest you had as you flew from Spanish beauty to Spanish beauty.
I always ask myself if I should let these words and phrases just fade from my vocabulary. No one understands them anyways. If I exclaim DOCH because you are disagreeing with my agreement, only my Frenchman will understand the punch behind its intended meaning.
But then I wonder, since language is a living entity, should I just use these phrases anyways? Words get incorporated into languages all the time; just think nada in Spanish. Sometimes there just is no good translation for a word, and maybe it’s up to those who flow in between different speeches to introduce old words into new languages.
I know this can’t be an unusual predicament for anyone who travels. If you have had the same mental wrestling match, what do you do? Let me know, I’m really interested!