How do you Translate Your Travel Experiences?

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!


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Juanma says:

    I just read your article, it’s amazing how different are the languages and how many different idioms we have. Great article!

    Just one little suggestion, in Spanish the correct idiom is “Llendo de flor en flor” or “Ir de flor en flor”.

    By the way, my apologies form my English level (I’m a native Spanish living abroad)


    1. Jessi says:

      Hi! No, thank you. I haven’t heard it in 4 or 5 years so I was secretly hoping someone would correct me! I spend most of my time now in French (it’s spoken at home) so sometimes the phrases meld into one another.

      And you’re English is perfect. Don’t even think twice about that!! I hope you stop by again!


  2. Thanks for the link :).

    I think you really get to the heart of the tension of translation between literal translation and intended meaning.
    While it does seem to make sense to translate an idiom into an equivalent with the same meaning, rather than a literal translation.
    But the one thing that gets lost then is the sense of the original language, which could come from different aspects like its choice of vocabulary or rhythm.
    It makes me think of older Irish people who speak English but with the rhythm and structure of the Gaelic language which their parents or grandparents would have spoken.
    There’s a particular rhythm and roundabout meandering charm that gets lost when translating to common English.


    1. Jessi says:

      You’re so welcome, I really love your blog! Oh, you must speak Irish then! I’ve only ever seen it written when we visited Ireland for work, but I can only imagine how it sounds if it uses what look like runes to write! Thanks for your thoughts, they are ALWAYS welcome and appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome :). It’s an interesting language, technically the first official language of the country (which is why it’s on all the signs) but most people can barely speak it. That’s even though we have to learn it for about 13 years in school, but the way it’s taught often isn’t great, with little speaking practice, and people often resent that it’s a mandatory subject. I think I just had a bit of a knack for it, though it’s a pity I never get to use it much. It sounds a little bit like German with touches of Arabic when it’s spoken: really engages the throat!


      2. Jessi says:

        Youtubed it. Just wow! That’s so cool that you can speak that!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Even if I don’t get to use it often I’m glad I have it. And it’s a great secret language to use to talk about other people!


      4. Jessi says:

        Hahahh true! I’m super jealous

        Liked by 1 person

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