Learning a language leads to something greater than the sum of its parts


For a while when I was about four years old, I was 100% convinced that I spoke 100% Spanish.

I would listen to the Spanish radio station – I grew up in Texas so there was a lot – then I would imitate the sounds. I did, after all, know what I was saying, so by my four-year-old’s logic, any Spanish speaker would of course have understood me too (never mind that I would have no idea what they or they were saying; the kind of magic you believe in at age four is decidedly self-centered).

When I was a bit older and realized that I actually didn’t speak Spanish, I decided that if I wanted to learn it, it would be easy. It would just be memorizing the Spanish words I wanted to use in English and then saying them in the exact same order in Spanish. In other words:

“I (blah) want (blah) to eat (blah) pancakes (blah).”

Simple, right?

It was much, much later, probably in my high school German class, when I realized that grammatical structures were one thing and could be very different from language to language. Adjectives after names? Gender-specific articles in places where I wouldn’t use any articles at all in English? Pronouns integrated into verb forms? It’s just crazy talk.

I spent my first month in Mexico stumbling through the haze as I tried to get my brain to remember to change adjectives and articles to match their genders and plurality to the noun I had surely mistaken gender and plurality in the first place. I looked like a two year old most of the time, but I persevered and can now say with confidence that I have the Spanish skills of at least a ninth grader who knows everything.

So now I know the truth: every language is its own world. For outsiders, it’s a vaguely recognizable system of communication, guaranteed to be full of both delightful and infuriating surprises – like, you know how the word “hope” and “wait” are the same in Spanish (to hope)? It drives me crazy.

I am much older now and work as a professional translator. I love literary translations more than any other type, but the market demand is mostly in the form of journalistic translations (important), subtitles for Spanish shows (fun), and lots of legal documents really, really boring (meh, work is work).

When I’m lucky, I can translate “live” for newcomers to town, serving as both an interpreter and someone who knows how to bridge cultural blind spots that neither party trying to communicate would come to. the idea. ask or mention.

Contrary to my convictions as a child of four and even 15 years old, translation is as much an art as a science: it is the creative search to find the right words, to create a dish with an identical taste. and texture with a completely different set of ingredients.

In the end, it is much more delicate than it seems. When creating subtitles for Colombian soap operas, for example, there are so many decisions to be made: do I translate a particular sentence in the very Colombian way it was said so that the culture itself even shines through the tongue? Am I just finding a similar idiomatic expression in English to make sure the likely monolingual viewer can enjoy it without trying to infer the meaning of an incredibly awkward expression in English?

(Hint: the correct answer is usually second. Also, while we’re here in parentheses, fun fact: if you thought “worn out” was formal, wait until you hear people address them like Su Merced — “your majesty” — just to be polite… and that’s not even sarcastic.)

That’s when you realize how much your language is linked to a culture.

When doing my Colombian soap opera work, I often find myself wanting to create two separate sets of translations: one for people who just want to watch the show and get the gist of it, and another for people who really want to appreciate the richness. of the language and understand the culture it came from — i.e. a version for the kind of people who always read footnotes, even when said footnotes are longer than the page above them.

Speaking, writing and expressing myself differently in two different languages ​​gave my life a richness that I was happy and proud to pass on to my daughter. It’s something I would recommend everyone learn to do if they have the chance in this lifetime.

Once you get really good, you can play with your two languages ​​(or if you’re European, all five). You might even find those fun, ecstatic spots where you can let some good Spanglish flow, making your world – even if it’s just for this conversation – double in size.

In the meantime, if you’re new to Spanish here, allow me to highlight a few words and phrases you’re likely to encounter in Mexico that surprisingly confused me at first:

Gustar. You may already know that this is the verb used to talk about liking something. I like, taste, etc However, this verb does not behave like the English word “like” because to taste refers to the object rather than the subject.

So, for example, Me gustan los tamales is not literally “I like tamales”, but rather “I like tamales”. If you want to say “He likes me”, you would say (with the optional addition of Yo a el at the beginning of the sentence for clarity): taste.

It took me a while to figure this out, but once I got it, I got it; you will have it too.

By the way, say you love someone with the verb to taste means that you are romantically attracted to this person; if you want to say you like them as a friend, that’s it’s going well, a sin I’m fine — “I like it. (You’re welcome).

Ask vs. amar. You probably know that the Spanish verb for “to want” is ask. I love you is also a kind and sweet “I love you” phrase appropriate for close friends and family and for couples who want to declare their love but aren’t ready to propose or anything.

Corn youI’m in love is a deeper and more intense “I love you”; it’s “I’m in love with you” in the context of a relationship, and it should be used responsibly.

hacer falta. It’s one of my favorite phrases that doesn’t really have an equivalent in English, at least in some contexts. It literally means that something is missing, but you can use it with people, as in me haces falta. It’s like saying “I miss you” or even “I’m less of a person because you’re not here”.

And if that’s not the most romantic phrase you’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what else to say.

If you’re just starting your language learning journey, I’m thrilled for you. A whole other world awaits you, and its shimmering and grimy parts will amaze you.

Prepare to be surprised.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached via her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and his Patreon page.

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