Now that we’re back from furlough, I have been struck anew at how powerful the concept of language really is to those of us attempting to communicate across the world. And while it is difficult enough to learn to translate our thoughts into another language, it is even more difficult to learn how to translate them into another culture and then communicate that appropriately in their own native tongue. Let me explain what I mean.
Imagine that you are speaking with someone from England, and they keep using phrases that technically you should understand, because you speak the same language, but you realize you don’t know what they are actually talking about because the way those words are pieced together doesn’t communicate to you the idea they intend you to receive. They might talk about fish and chips (fried fish and french fries) or eating aubergines (eggplant), or it might just be the way they pronounce a familiar word that throws you for a loop. Include someone from South Africa or Australia and everyone is confused. Now imagine that you are using another language entirely, and though you might know the word for fish, you can’t comprehend whether they are talking about a meal, pet, or lake inhabitant.
It all comes down to knowing what you want to say first, then understanding how it must be said in order for locals to understand your meaning, not just your words. For example, we use the phrase “nothing to do with that” to mean that something is a completely unrelated topic to that being discussed. In Spanish, if I literally translated those words, it wouldn’t communicate the same idea and a Peruvian would be lost. They literally say “there is nothing that to see with that”. Or they use “un rato” to mean “a while”, but the first time I heard that, I wondered why someone was telling me to wait a little rat. And then there are words that appear extremely similar to English, but mean something different, such as “sensible” which does not mean sensible, but sensitive. Needless to say, there have been lots of such moments when learning words didn’t suffice to understand someone’s meaning.
One major hurdle for English speakers in learning Spanish is the two choices that mean “to be”. One (estar) communicates in a temporal, conditional sense (mostly, with exceptions) while the other (ser) describes the quality or long-term state of the subject. Add on to this that some adjectives actually change meaning depending on which of these two verbs is being used. I can say “Está listo” or “He is ready” in the sense that in this moment he is ready to act. However, if I say “Es listo” that appears to also mean “He is ready” it actually means “He is sly” (or clever or sneaky). We have to be careful with answering the question “How are you?” with “Soy buena” (lit. “I am good”) because it actually connotes an arrogance that blatantly states to the world “I am made of high quality stuff!”. Subtle differences on the surface, but they matter.
Still another is where the adjective falls in relation to the noun being modified. Normally, Spanish adjectives follow the noun, so one would say “I have a car blue” or “That is a man tall”. With some adjectives, moving it ahead of the noun makes it modify the subject more qualitatively than literally. Some examples would be “my friend old” means “my friend who is many years of age” while “my old friend” means “my friend for many years. “The man great” means literally “the man who is of large size”, but “the great man” means “the man of high quality”.
I have to move beyond translating myself and learn the way Peruvians think and perceive their own language if I really want to speak it. If I want to communicate something to heart of a friend here, I must know what it is they will hear me say. It can make it more difficult to connect, even with the right vocabulary, because humor doesn’t translate (puns don’t work when the words change), and we might end up lost in colloquialisms that just don’t make sense in the conversation.
It can be quite hard. We have spent this last week just trying to get back into the habit of speaking Spanish, prompting Shaye to get used to the greeting style here and remembering the proper translation and pronunciation. I have had moments in which I completely drew a blank and had to back up and start over. We have lived here for two years, fully immersed in this country, but we are still learning how to continue past merely speaking the words of the Spanish language to speaking the culture.
But the frustrations also serve to make the successes and strong connections all the more valuable. When we are able to really laugh with our friends here, we know we have accomplished something significant. When we know exactly what to say to a friend who is grieving and really offer comfort, we value anew the necessity of this learning process. When we have a deep conversation about life and faith, we can rejoice in obvious steps in the right direction. Moments like these help us persevere, because on the bad days, we remember that it is worth it.