Gained in translation

I surprised myself when I took up writing, never having displayed the urge across several decades (okay, several plus). My love of reading, however, and simple love of words, is life-long. In fact, I chose to study Linguistics. It’s fascinating for many reasons, not least because it explores how we communicate and the intrinsic ties between language and culture.

I have attempted to learn several languages, often with limited success, and partly driven by the practical necessity having lived in a few different countries. These languages crossed the linguistic groups of Romance, Hellenic, Slavic, and Finno-Ugric – the latter being a faltering attempt to learn Hungarian. I did not progress beyond basic conversation (reduced some years later to a few phrases and a bit of ‘menu Hungarian’). But a few random words stay with me that are not concerned with daily usefulness. Like German, Hungarian features a lot of compound nouns, making for some lengthy words that when translated literally are utterly charming.

I have blogged before (here) about words that express a yearning for another place, similar but not the same as ‘wanderlust’ in English. Hungarian, as another instance, features the word “elvágyódás”, again, not so much a desire to travel as a more non-specific feeling of wanting to be elsewhere, perhaps in a place you are fated to be, but have not yet found. Or that’s how I understand it.

Languages often adopt words from other tongues where a concept exists but not a suitable lexical item, such as Schadenfreude from German into English (though much mangled in pronunciation, I am sure). But there may also be instances of language that are tied to a notion we simply do not have in our native culture — I mean neither language nor concept. Or there may be examples of language that only make sense in the context of experience.

Perhaps because I’ve lived in other countries, or perhaps in part because I think of myself as an internationalist (and I say now, I am a European — a misguided political vote will not change that), the characters in my writing come from a variety of countries. I don’t necessarily plan it, they just… Are. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, for I don’t claim to be some literary talent, but these characters simply invent themselves. And part of that is the place each comes from. Further to confuse matters, some of these characters have more than one national identity and are bilingual — a common phenomenon in Europe and, of course, wherever there are large first- and second generation immigrant populations.

“Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.” Lera Boroditsky

Much has been discussed about whether a male writer can write from the female perspective, or a female from the male perspective, particularly in first person. In some ways, the same question or challenge exists if writing from the point of view of someone of a different nationality, culture and / or religion. Can it be done successfully?

There appears to be an accepted position that whilst our native language does not limit our perceptions of the world, it does affect how we experience it or how we filter those experiences, what we focus on, and the ways in which we learn.

I have also written previously about my near-addiction to TED Talks (listen to one and it’s hard to stop). In How language shapes the way we think, Lera Boroditsky, the Belarusian cognitive scientist, considers how language is instrumental in creating our personal reality. She notes that “Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.” In other words, as many ‘universes’ as there are languages. In English, for instance, we have no grammatical gender but in languages that do, ‘feminine’ common nouns are endowed in people’s minds with more traditionally female attributes, says Boroditsky. For Germans speakers this would include the sun, for Spanish speakers the moon. The grammatical gender affects the perception of the object.

To add to the complication, I am drafting something that is not only set in another country (from my own), but also set 150 years ago. An added complication because, as novelist LP Hartley so famously wrote, The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I am trying to find first-hand texts from the period to gain a sense of ‘voice’ and perspective, though I am not proficient enough to do so in the required foreign language. In any case, I am not sure I could really understand language properly without having lived in a country where it is natively or commonly spoken.

Perhaps next time it would be more authentic (and easier) for me to ignore all those characters that pop up from other nationalities, since I cannot force them to become someone they are not. If only they would stop creating themselves that way.



How language shapes the way we think, Lera Boroditsky, 2017, TEDWomen

Quote from LP Hartley 1953 The Go-between, Penguin Books

Picture Poparak Apichodilo via Pexels

12 thoughts on “Gained in translation

  1. Wow nice to hear about Lera B & what a great quote lol (my mum lives in Minsk now).
    About the question: can we or can not? – I believe we can, but still I do find myself struggling thru the texts where the narrator is a female (but the writer is a male). Not always tho…but often

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must admit, I have also struggled a bit with male writers writing from the female perspective – maybe it relates to historical power balance. And it may be unfair as female writers have written / write from the male perspective, arguably without the same disapprobation. Still, I did find the recent Twitter discussion on one male author’s attempts amusing, e.g.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed 🙂 funny article 😂👍 thx for sharing


  2. Love TED talks too. I think the relationship between language and our thinking is incredible. We all have this internal narrator going in our heads during all our waking hours. I think that’s why meditation is so popular. It gives us a chance to make that narrator SHUT UP!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, being able to switch off the internal voice or critic a while sounds very desirable – I keep meaning to try Mindfulness, but my past attempts at meditation haven’t been very successful.


  4. Nice title… enjoyed reading your post… language shapes thoughts , thoughts create the world… how important mere words become then for the individual and the world…made me wonder…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s the old conundrum, does language drive (or indeed constrain) thought or does thought drive language?
      I am sure people are richer for knowing more than one language – unfortunately the English have been better at forcing the language on others than at learning others’.


      1. Much to think…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Language does shape the way we think, and vice-versa.
    A german sentence for instance often puts the verb at the end, obliging the speaker
    to think the entire phrase before opening his/her mouth.
    I Romance languages you can start and end your sentence as you wish.
    (Which is why so many never stop speaking!)
    Take care

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, Germanic languages are so ordered – at the risk of cliché. Though English has a strict Subject / Verb / Object order, and we’re not so organised as a people. I remember with my modest and limited attempts with Slavic languages, they are also “SVO” in order, but one could (with such morpheme rich languages) drop the subject and move order around depending on what one wanted to emphasise, which I see can be very expressive.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. Slavic languages are probably beyond my reach. I remember a short stay in Prague, unable to decipher any word. The roots are too different. I mean Pivo = beer? 😉


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