One of the most beautiful and equally challenging aspects of life is communication. We all know how assuring it is to speak or write and feel as though your words are understood by another. In contrast, we’ve all felt the confusion and humiliation of our words being misunderstood or lost in translation.
Living as an American expatriate in Southeast Asia for the past 15 months, and dating a British man for the past 12 months, I’ve found that words can be lost in translation regardless of the language you are speaking.
As an expatriate, the challenge of communicating is exacerbated. For me, it is a daily challenge I face as a U.S. citizen living outside the U.S.. Even around my British expat friends and co-workers whose first language is English, it can still be a challenge to communicate. Who would have thought the same language could be spoken so differently?
In my quest for understanding how widespread this challenge is, I found that according to the World Economic Forum, “of the approximately 1.5 billion people who speak English, less than 26% (400 million) use it as a first language.” This means 1.1 billion people are speaking English as a secondary form of communication, while the remaining 79% (5.9 billion) of people on this planet are speaking another language entirely. Are you starting to see the potential for words to be lost in translation?
While trying to communicate to locals here in Asia, I’ve had some memorable translation experiences. I recall, while checking out of an accommodation in Bali, I watched the owner rush around telling the housekeeper not to clean the upstairs room until after 11am. The owner was speaking English and the housekeeper was not. After the owner rushed off, I noticed the housekeeper looked very confused and it was clear to me she had not understood the owner’s instructions.
In an effort to ease her confusion, I pulled out my iPhone and used the Google Translate app to show her in Balinese (local language), “she said do not clean upstairs until after 11.” You see, words can still be lost in translation, even when precisely translated.
The housekeeper didn’t understand the translation, which meant it was time for charades. I made a few attempts at gesturing “no clean upstairs,” (cross arms forming an X, pretend sweep the floor, point to second floor), and “11am OK clean upstairs,” (point to 11am on watch, gesture thumbs up and smile, pretend sweep the floor, point to second floor). Suddenly her eyes lit up! I couldn’t help but beam her back a smile as she nearly hugged me. Translation success!
Another instance was my first meal in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I attempted to order a vegetarian dish from a stereotypical “hole in the wall” Thai restaurant (plastic chairs, outdoor kitchen, sun-bleached photographs of menu items on the wall). I felt this would result somewhere between me starving, suffering potential food poisoning, accidently ordering meat, and enjoying a lovely meal.
I dove head first into the experience. And an experience is what I had. There were only two Thai people running the restaurant, neither spoke a word of English. My knowledge of Thai language at the time was the numbers one through five and “hello.” It was a recipe for an epic miscommunication.
I absolutely butchered the word “vegetarian” in Thai (มังสวิรัติ or “mạngs̄wirạti”) several times and the server appeared royally confused. After 10 minutes of back and forth and getting nowhere, I resorted to my iPhone again. I showed her photos of a pig, a fish, and a chicken each with an “X” through them. Her eyes lit up!
I hoped for the best as she disappeared to the kitchen and later came back with a type of fruit and vegetable salad that I did not recognize. Tomatoes, apples, onions, grapes, green beans, peanuts, and garlic in a thick chili sauce. No big, no fish, no chicken. In all fairness, I may have enjoyed this meal a bit more had I not been paranoid about getting food poisoning as some of my friends already had in Thailand. My tastebuds were just as confused eating this salad as her ears must have been when I tried to speak Thai. Translation success!
Miscommunication between people speaking two different languages seems obvious, right? Now, what about miscommunication between two people speaking the same language?
It seems the 21% of English speakers in the world should understand each other, or at least the 400 million of us who use it as our first form of communication should. But all too often our words are lost in translation, even the ones that don’t need Google translate.
Take, for example, some of the English words and phrases my Brummie-born (Queen’s English-trained) British boyfriend says that, at some point have, or still do, make me very confused:
wanna cuppa? = would you like a cup of tea?
footy/football = soccer
trousers = pants
pants = men’s briefs/tighty-whities
knackered = exhausted
gobsmacked = shocked/speechless
fancy a biscuit? = do you want a cookie?
you look smart = you look well-dressed (no reference to intelligence)
ace/brilliant = awesome
pop to the loo/bog = go to the bathroom
having a fag = smoking a cigarette
dinner = lunch
supper = dinner
minging = ugly/gross
don’t be saft = don’t be silly/too caring/worry too much
snog = french-kiss
shag = sex
bird = girl
taking the piss = making fun of/joking
car park = parking lot
the boot = the trunk of the car
the bonnet = the hood of the car
spanner = wrench
full stop = period (punctuation at the end of a sentence)
put the rubbish in the bin = put the garbage in the garbage can
petrol = gasoline or diesel
And the list goes on. Now put a Brummie-ish accent with it and you may find yourself, like me, often lost in translation.