Lost in Translation?

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m dozing in front of the fire, half-listening to the background murmur of the telly. It is playing my dad’s viewing of choice: a documentary on Colombia.

The programme cuts to the presenter interviewing Buenaventuran citizens, and I tune in properly.


I rarely watch tv and when I do, it’s because I’ve been drawn in by the title of a documentary. Factual, informative, and with a structure that’s easy to follow, this is the type of programme I get the most out of. However, I have always felt snubbed on behalf of their contributors who speak a foreign language. Both TV and radio broadcasts give the listener little time to digest the richness of the speaker’s language before a voiceover cuts in with an English translation. The identity of the speaker is superseded by the English reader, and the authenticity of their language and culture is lost. Imagine my delight, then, when the residents of Buenaventura began to tell their story, and there was no sound of an English translation.


Disregard the screen and the interview becomes a one-sided conversation. Reeve’s questions are poignant in their simplicity, and their answers remain a mystery.

I spent the next half hour listening to the programme in this way, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. I have always thought Spanish was a beautiful language, yet I had never appreciated how skillful it is in conveying deep emotion. I listened to Colombian people shouting and weeping, gaining a greater sense of their loss from their spoken words than I could have found in the English translation. I began to notice patterns in their speech: repeated phrases, and silences too. Their pauses provided a moving contrast to the constant stream of indistinguishable words by

saying the things that couldn’t be said.


Turn again to the screen and it is a stream of captions. The dialogue has been subtitled, and our appreciation of the language is sacrificed to this intrusion.

It was only recently that voiceovers were replaced with subtitles in video footage. People with a visual disability rightly complained about this injustice; why should they be excluded from understanding what the speaker is saying?


I want to take this idea a step further and suggest that we should all feel that same sense of exclusion. Voiceovers and subtitles should be consigned to the history of broadcasting; the future is in the voice of the speaker and their language. How else can we fully appreciate the way a person lives than through their culture? Language is integral to a society; therefore, it is essential for us to grasp how someone forms sentences and expresses their emotions. Most of all, an authentic, uninterrupted view of the speaker instils us with the desire to learn about them.


I learnt at a young age that you have to immerse yourself in a language in order to fully appreciate a country. I was eighteen when I spent a year in Germany, teaching English as a foreign language. I had good grades in German, but it wasn’t until I had found my way around the city, opened a bank account, dealt with internet and energy providers, and bought the essentials – only then could I begin to understand what it was like to live there. My German became shaped by others’ responses and the natural spoken word of the culture I was inhabiting. A year of socialising gave me insight into how direct German speakers can be, and how refreshingly genuine they are.


I wonder if we have ever fully understood the privilege of being fluent in a language that is one of the most widely spoken in the world. Teaching English certainly makes you realise what a difficult lexicon it is to get your tongue around. Countries meet our continual exploitation of their sunnier climes and interesting sights with tolerance and often friendliness. In return, we are reluctant to learn or even engage with their language. Living in another country means that your attempts to imitate the fluency and grace of native speakers are applauded yet rarely corrected. Your mispronunciation of a familiar word will invariably be ridiculed, and there will be a point when you force back the tears because you’re lost in a strange place with no idea of how to ask for help. When your English friends come to visit, you translate for them – back and forth, back and forth – until your brain hurts. Only after this can we claim to truly understand the privilege of being fluent in a language that is universally understood. Meanwhile, the native folk of our favourite holiday destinations continue to repeat slowly and patiently for us – a poor repayment for the years of study they have put into learning English.


Without verbal and written translations, we can learn a lot. Watch people speak and you will glean so much from their body language alone. Listening to them will enable you to experience their feelings through their tone, pace, and pitch of their speech. It was the American writer Tom Peters who said that “if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” Instead of half-listening to an English speaker voice the tragedies of someone far away or absently scanning the bland subtitled fragments of their story, our inquiring minds become sharpened to the unfamiliar sound of a foreign language. Depriving us all of our English language safety blanket enables us to become curious. This curiosity is the beginnings of the motivation to immerse ourselves in their world. It’s time for the voices of foreign language speakers to remain untranslated. Only then can we hear them for what they are: diverse, authentic shards of humanity.

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