Lost in Non-Translation


Language ability seems to advance through stages of development. An early level is when everything you hear must be translated to your native tongue in your head. Likewise, at this point, one thinks of something to say in their own language, translates it, and then speaks. Not only does this precipitate a slow communication process, but in very different languages, things are said differently and really shouldn’t be translated.

Another step is to think like a native speaker of the language you are learning (in my case Japanese). Languages develop differently because culture and ways of thinking are different around the world. Early on, it took me concerted effort to have a short conversation solely in Japanese. Occasionally I had breakthroughs, where I finished a twenty minute chat and realized that it was entirely in Japanese. Putting my ideas into words, required that I think in a new way.

Now, I am in a phase where I can quickly put the same thought into English or Japanese. Naturally, I still have huge holes in my vocabulary, and there are nuances that I can’t express in Japanese; however, there are some ideas that lend themselves well to Japanese, and I have trouble finding appropriate English to describe them. Recently, I came across a problem associated with this level of understanding.

The more fluid the process of turning ideas into English or Japanese becomes, the less I consciously consider which language I am speaking. I do try to avoid speaking heavily mixed Japenglish, but I forget who is my audience. When I went to hear the Uzbek and Vietnamese doctors speak, I spent most of the day translating conversations for them. Both doctors speak English fairly well and speak some Japanese, but the bulk of the Japanese discussions were over their heads.

I was in a mode of jumping back and forth from English to Japanese, depending on my listener. When translating, this process is fairly easy because you naturally alternate one for one; however, in free conversation, the process of taking turns is very unstructured. A couple times, I turned to an English speaker and said something to them in Japanese. Sometimes the opposite occurs as well. Usually, the blank stare coming back makes my mistake clear.

One little happening was when a shuji instructor explained something a little deep. I turned to the Vietnamese doctor and proceeded to say almost the same thing in simpler Japanese. We knowingly looked into each others eyes and laughed; then I quickly corrected my mistake and translated to English for her. The instructor missed what happened because she could understand my first explanation subconsciously, the fact that the listener wouldn’t understand was external to her, hence requiring conscious effort to notice. She wanted to know why we were laughing.


3 Responses to “Lost in Non-Translation”

  1. sunkissd1 Says:

    My best friend was raised here speaking Dutch and English at home and lived in Holland for 4 years. She is married to a Dutchman and they speak both languages at home as well with their young kids. At one point though, it seemed as though she’d kind of ‘lost’ some of her English vocabulary….often times she’s searching for ‘the’ word, then will say “in Dutch, we say XXX, which roughly means YYY”.

  2. びっくり Says:

    Ah yes, just yesterday I was searching for the word for the page immediately inside the cover of a book, which is often glued to the inside of the cover. I kept thinking ‘interleaf’, which is clearly not correct. As I was writing this comment, ‘overleaf’ came to mind. The definition could technically cover this, but I think there’s another word I know (…knew). People ask if I am worried about losing my English ability, but I do a bit of reading and try to write in the blog often. I think I’ll be alright.

  3. sunkissd1 Says:

    Cover page perhaps? Coverlet?

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