NOT Lost in Translation

Posted by:  |  Category: Bicultural Vida, Daily Blog


Photo credit: mikebaird

What?! What?!

I hear this refrain countless times a day from Marisol, my toddler. Sometimes she hasn’t heard me, or, often, she doesn’t know what I said because I said it in Spanish.  ¡Qué pena! This is the not surprising result of my being too bone-tired to speak to her in much Spanish after the birth of her sister two months ago (despite my best intentions).  With little sleep and round-the-clock nursing, I just had to use the words that came most readily to mind, and often, they were English ones.

So, now we begin again, a few steps backwards, then a few forwards, towards our goal of bilingualism.  I’m trying to convince her that her baby sister only understands español, which is not so hard, since newborns can’t say to the contrary.

My biggest comfort, in the face of feeling like I’m failing at this whole bilingual thing, is that at two and half, she is like a sponge.  She picks up new Spanish words easily, and I know that if I keep speaking to her in Spanish, she will get it.  I’m going back to some of the basic things I already new, like naming new objects in Spanish only so that she can’t “choose” the English term until the Spanish one is really ingrained.

So what if I have to answer a few extra “What?! What?!s” everyday. Soon, I expect to hear “¿Qué? ¿Qué?

Hitting this minor setback at this time of year does seem particularly fitting as we head towards our Christmas holiday and a huge family with a vast array of Spanish proficiencies.  In fact, some of my fondest memories of holidays with our extended family is observing how English-dominant speakers and Spanish-dominant speakers interact and cross the boundaries of language.  This is to say nothing of the variations of Spanish that Roxana wrote about in her thanksgiving post. We have Spanish-speaking familia from El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and the U.S.¡ Even when we think we’re speaking the same language, often, we are not.  Every Christmas there is great debate over whether “limón” or “lima” is the correct name for a “lemon”.  The answer seems to depend on if you are from Guatemala or El Salvador!

This year in particular is an exciting one, with my sister and her family coming all the way up from Guatemala to spend the season with the rest of us in California.  I’m hoping that Marisol will learn from them and us how to switch from one language to another, and in between, and observe  how many things can never be lost in translation among familia.

It’s always funny to see how we try to translate ourselves. I couldn’t think of how to say “cabbage” in Spanish on the phone the other day and found myself telling my sister, “es como lechuga, pero no es lechuga.”  I don’t know if anyone beside my sister would have figured out what I was trying to say.  We worked it out and we both got a good giggle.  In person, we use our hands and faces as much as our words to try and convey our intended message.  I have seen my English-speaking husband walk out the door with my Spanish-speaking teenage nephew and haven’t doubted that they would be able to communicate and enjoy each other’s company.

Just as there are some words that don’t ever translate quite right, like “cariño” (is it “care”, “affection,” “tenderness”, or “sweetness”, or a bit of each?), there are things that cannot be lost in translation, like laughter and joy, embraces and, yes, cariño.

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