Living in a new culture can often open your eyes to just how many different ways there are to communicate. In fact, new languages and cultures, in addition to teaching you new means of communication, may even open your mind to ideas that you previously never knew existed. This deep connection between language and culture – how learning one requires a deep appreciation of the other – is what I would like to explore in this article.
Let’s begin by looking at a few words unique to Portuguese:
- The concept of missing someone or feeling a lack is perfectly expressed through the word saudades. No other language I know has a single word that perfectly conveys a sense of nostalgic longing for something that may never return. To have saudades is to feel a lingering love for something absent.
- The Portuguese score again with gostoso, a single word that generally means “to please all your senses.” How gostoso describes “how it pleases you.”
- Another nearly impossible-to-translate Portuguese word is cafuné, which is “the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.”
In Portuguese-speaking areas, these common words are used often and in countless contexts. This is not surprising; for any new word with a wide range meanings, the cycle of its evolution that allows for its use in new expressions and its increased popularity. Other words are just better at expressing certain specific things. Whatever the case, both types of words can be hard to translate.
Grasping Native Gestures
New ways to communicate do not always stem from words; gestures and body languages vary remarkably from culture to culture as well, but are just as potent means of expression. In contrast to the movement-averse Japanese, for example, Latin American speakers use a diverse range of hand gestures. Once you’ve learned them, you may begin to wonder how you ever conveyed meaning without them!
Naive visitors to the south of Brazil might look at the hand gestures pictured above and right and screw up their noses in confusion. To Brazilians, the first hand gesture means ‘What are you taking about?’ or, ‘Have you lost the plot?’ In response, an experienced gesticulator may make a gesture that is generally taken to mean “I don’t know!”
Translating as an Art
A translator’s job is not just to look up words in a dictionary, but to communicate ideas or phrases in the most culturally and linguistically proximate way.
The alternative – trying to translate too literally – is a perilous path and a common mistake made by the average traveller armed only with a phrase book and an understanding of one’s own culture.
But the kind of insights a translator needs can only come from deeper immersion in the language and culture of a place, especially the way people express themselves in both spoken and written format. For instance, people from different cultures have very different approaches to writing (see image below).
Of course, writing and oral communication are inextricably interlinked. Directly asking for what you want may be acceptable in some cultures in the USA for example; however, in South America not taking the time to engage in the niceties of small talk may lead to you coming across as rude and too aggressive.
The ability to consider cultural factors such as these is perhaps the most important aspect of a translator’s job.
Communicating Across Cultures
The act of communicating involves myriad cultural and linguistic hurdles, but fortunately mastering each individual expression and gesture is less important than recognizing that people across cultures communicate differently.
If you are aware of variance, it will change the way you travel. That means taking in what people are doing around you, copying their movements, adjusting to their cultures and conforming to their way of communicating. With this simple mindset , you will be able to pick up the subtle differences that may previously have passed you by. You may also help to slow the cultural erosion all too often seen in tourist hotspots. This will help make travel a more sustainable, enlightening and enjoyable experience.