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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P.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!

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  • Hi Triple H,

    You’re dead right about that – nowadays when I’m getting asked how EXACTLY you say such and such thing in Latvian (it’s my native language) – I always say that you can’t translate directly, you have to operate with concepts in your target language.

    Recently I was asked, for example, what a “hard shoulder” is (it’s a part of the road beyond a yellow line where you’re not allowed to drive or stop except for emergencies). I started explaining the concept but I was interrupted by the person in question telling me “Please would you just tell me what exactly it’s called in Latvian?” – to which I responded: “There is no such a word in Latvian! I’m just explaining to you what it is, so that you can understand the concept!”

    Needless to say, some people are hell-bent on translating and find it hard to come to terms with the concept of operating with abstract concepts…

    By the way – here’s a related article which I’m sure you’ll find interesting: http://englishharmony.com/desire-to-translate/



  • I personally loathe the “Translation” concept. I have always attempted to learn English using English, so when I am watching TV shows or movies I comprehend them pretty well, but if translating is called for, I simply “Choke.
    Cheers!! ):-

  • You’re 100% correct in saying that many foreigners are better at translating because they link English words to the direct equivalents in their native language – and you’re also absolutely right pointing out that it slows one down when speaking. English fluency has little to do with translation because you have to think in your target language, yet many don’t realize it because those two seem to be naturally connected.nnThanks for your comment!

  • klunk kkk

    Yeah. I can’t agree more. Being a diligent learner of a foreign language doesn’t automatically make you a simultaneous interpreter, does it? I mean, even those guys mess up every so often. So it’s absolutely ridiculous to expect every foreign language speaker to have great skills of professional on-the-fly translating.u00a0nI think it’s OK if some language learners may actually decide to switch their focus of attention to translating stuff between languages, maybe for career reasons or something. However, it’s also important to remain open minded to the fact that you don’t really need translating to speak any language. nA lot of my peers at college can’t speak a word of English, but many of them get better grades in ESL class. Probably, because they always tend to link English words with equivalents in their native language, they are better at translating. My goal has always been to be able to speak English. I think translating will only slow me down. To each their own. So, it’s not that I’m against translating, I just think they must create a separate class for it to avoid ambiguity.