Lost in Translation – What I learned about Communication with foreigners in a Bar

One of the things I love most about travel and meeting people of different cultures and languages is the learning that takes place within myself. Here’s a quick example of something I learned – something that I think I already knew, but didn’t really understand the vastness of until last week.

I was out to dinner talking to a few Brazilian students who were at a conference for architecture here in the States. Each of them were either working on their PhD dissertation or already a professor.

These were obviously some of the most intelligent people I have ever met – and each of them spoke English to a varying degree. I speak some Spanish, but no Portuguese, so we stuck to English. I began having a conversation with a Brazilian woman named Rosane. Even in English I could tell she was quite intelligent though sometimes when my vocabulary became too complex, I used a common expression, used sarcasm, or spoke a little quickly I could tell she didn’t catch part of my meaning.

After a while she mentioned how it was difficult to articulate what she wanted to say – especially regarding philosophical or highly complex thoughts in a foreign language. That’s when it hit me – the vastness of language and communication.

Here sits two educated people with the desire to communicate complex and interesting ideas, but unable to speak much above a high school level. I love Language and this fact makes it all the more interesting to me – what things can two cultures fail to communicate – what things carry over? I noticed an infinite number of both in the subtleties of our conversation.

I can’t help but wonder how intelligent these people really were. What would that same conversation sound like in English or if I spoke Portuguese. I imagine it would have been deep and informative.

There was a indie rock band playing so on several occasions I tried to explain the metaphor in a lyric, or the meaning behind the title of a book, geo-political issues, etc. Some things I could tell they were instantly clear on, other things truly are lost in translation.

I am ashamed at the level of English other nationalities speak and my inability to speak a second language fluently. I think my new goal is to really master Spanish. I’ve sat on the idea long enough, used it briefly in my travels, but how can I really get to know a person and culture without speaking their language?

Communication, in all its forms, is the key to understanding.

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation – What I learned about Communication with foreigners in a Bar

  1. Jon

    Cool post.

    When I first ‘went out with’ my partner, it was long distance (Spain to U.S.). We’d see each other twice a year, but mostly we’d send each other emails every day- she’d send emails in Spanish, and I’d send mine in English. The idea was, that way we could each express ourselves normally in our own language, and the other could look up words that we didn’t understand. One day, I was at the coffeshop near me my friend Jerry (a funny guy who’s retired), and I told him about this woman and how beautiful her emails are – how she expresses herself so well. And Jerry said, “You don’t know Spanish well! How do you know she expresses herself so well; for all you know, she could be a real dummy”). He was just teasing me. But, of course, as you say in the post, you can tell that you’re talking to an interesting and intelligent person even if there are difficulties in the communication.

    1. Atticus

      That’s really interesting. I’ve never given much thought to the topic, but I suppose it makes a lot of sense to communicate to someone else in your own language. That’s actually really fascinating to me for some reason. I’ll bet you know Spanish pretty well now.

      I’m trying to learn Spanish – I would say my level is at about the “conversational tourist” level. I thought about reading some online magazines and newspapers in Spanish just to get used to the language and to gain the ability to express more complicated ideas in Spanish.


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