Lost in Translation OR Why I Couldn’t Translate Gulliver’s Travels

By Robby

If you are new here please read this first.

English Harmony AuthorI was watching TV the other day with my wife, kids and my sister-in-law. It was Gulliver’s Travels – a very nice family comedy, and as we settled down in the front of TV I was ready to translate it for my sister-in-law because her English isn’t as advanced as to understand every subtlety of English language.

You’d think I was very comfortable with the task, right? So would I – until I realized it’s not easy at all given the fact I haven’t built my English vocabulary as direct translation from my native language. I’ve acquired the bulk of English that I use and understand by learning from context, mimicking native speakers and reading loads of English fiction.

If you’re still wandering what it’s got to do with my inability to translate Gulliver’s Travels into Latvian for my sister-in-law, here’s a very detailed explanation.

When I speak, read, write or listen English, my mind switches to English completely. I don’t have English and Latvian working hand in hand in my head. In other words, I think only in English when I’m using the English language as means of communication.

Moreover – when it comes to recognizing and using English idioms, expressions, or even simple, daily phrases, the vast majority of those abstract terms in my head exist purely in English. Let’s take for instance, the following sentence – “She’s such a drama queen.” It’s something so simple and understandable to me, that I’d never thought of finding the best fitting translation of that phrase in Latvian. I just know what it means, I’m comfortable with using that expression in English if needs be, and that’s fine by me!

To put it simple and understandable terms for you – most of English has been acquired through English context, without getting my native language involve. So quite naturally, the translation process is redundant.

Side note. It’s crucial to realize English acquisition process can’t be equaled to an interpreter’s job. The best way of learning and improving your English is through contextual methods ❗

But now let’s go back to how I was translating Gulliver’s Travels. It got even worse when I had to provide an immediate translation to words meaning of which in my language I’m not really sure of. For instance, a woman can be courted, a girl can be wooed, but I can’t give you a precise definition of the respective words in Latvian simply because I never learnt those words with the respective translation in my language!

I must have seen and heard those words so many times that I instinctively know what they mean, I have a complete understanding of what unique connotation each of those words carries, yet I failed to provide equivalent words in Latvian.

All right, given enough time I could produce a fairly accurate translation. When translating a film, however, I hardly have time for dwelling upon linguistic matters, and I need to speak quite fast, and that’s why it proved to be quite a tricky task for me!

Once I even got stuck on the simplest word possible – “bored”. Yes, you got me right, all of a sudden my mind went all blank and I was desperately trying to say in Latvian what the girl in the film meant by saying “I’m so bored”! I started feeling quite embarrassed in front of my sister-in-law because despite my confidence as an English speaker deep inside I still feel a bit insecure when others make assumptions about my level of English.

Now I hope you start understanding why it wasn’t a piece of cake for me to translate Gulliver’s Travels for my sister-in-law as we watched it!


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