Saturday, June 15, 2024

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

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

I would listen to the Spanish radio station — I grew up in Texas, so there were a lot of them — and then imitate the sounds. I knew, after all, what I was saying, so by my four-year-old’s logic, any Spanish speaker would have of course understood me as well (never mind that I’d have no idea what they were saying; the kind of magic one believes in as a four-year-old is decidedly self-centered).

When I was a little older and realized that I did not, in fact, speak Spanish, I did decide that if I felt like learning it, it would be easy. It would simply be a matter of 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 (blah) 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 a thing and could be wildly different from language to language. Adjectives after nouns? Gender-specific articles in places where I’d use no article at all in English? Pronouns that are built into the verb forms? That’s just crazy talk.

I spent my first month in Mexico stumbling around in a haze as I tried to get my brain to remember to change adjectives and articles to make both their genders and plurality match the noun whose gender and plurality I’d surely gotten wrong in the first place. I sounded like a stoned two-year-old much of the time, but I persevered and can now confidently say that I have the Spanish language skills of at least a know-it-all ninth-grader.

So now I know the truth: every language is its own world. For outsiders, it’s an only vaguely recognizable system of communication, guaranteed to be full of surprises both delightful and maddening — like, y’all know how the word for “hope” and “wait” are the same in Spanish (esperar)? Drives me nuts.

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

When I’m lucky, I get to translate “live” for people who are new in town, serving as both interpreter and person who knows how to fill in the cultural blind spots it wouldn’t occur to either of the parties trying to communicate to ask or mention.

Contrary to my beliefs as a four-year-old and even as a 15-year-old, translating is as much art as it is science: it is the creative pursuit of finding just the right words, of creating a dish identical in taste and texture with a completely different set of ingredients.

In the end, it’s much trickier than it seems. When creating subtitles for Colombian soap operas, for example, there are so many decisions to make: do I translate a particular phrase in the very Colombian way that it’s been said so that the culture itself shines through the language? Do I simply find a similar idiomatic expression in English to ensure that the likely monolingual viewer can enjoy it without working to deduce the meaning of an unbelievably awkward-sounding expression in English?

(Hint: the correct answer is usually the second one. Also, while we’re here in these parentheses, fun fact: if you thought “usted” was formal, just wait ’til you hear people address each other as su merced — “your majesty” — just to be polite … and it’s not even sarcastic.)

These are the points at which one realizes how tied to a culture its language is.

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

Speaking, writing and otherwise expressing myself in two different languages has given my life a richness that I’ve been pleased and proud to pass down to my daughter. It is something I’d recommend everyone to learn to do if they get a chance in this lifetime.

Once you get really good, you can play with both of your languages (or if you’re European, all five of them). You might even find those ecstatically fun points at which you can let a nice Spanglish flow, making your world — even if it’s just for that conversation — double in size.

In the meantime, if you’re just starting out here with Spanish, allow me to make a point about a few words and phrases you’ll likely come across in Mexico that were astoundingly confusing to me at first:

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

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

It took me quite a while to wrap my head around this, but once I had it, I had it; you’ll get it too.

By the way, to say you like someone with the verb gustar means that you are romantically attracted to that person; if you mean you like them as a friend, it’s caer bien, as in me cae bien — “I like him/her.” (You’re welcome).

Querer vs. amar. You probably know that the Spanish verb for “want” is querer. Te quiero is also a nice, 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.

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

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

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

If you’re just starting out on your language-learning journey, I’m excited for you. A whole other world awaits you, and both its shimmering and grimy parts will astound you.

Get ready to be amazed.

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

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