Monday, 3 September 2007

Musings of a Polyglot

Today, I've once again spent half an hour just helping foreign colleagues understand Dutch documents. As a language geek, I don't mind at all, on the contrary. It's not even that weird that they ask me, a French guy, what some Dutch word means, given that besides our Dutch colleague who is currently on holidays and our Dutch boss who is always away on meetings, I'm the only one in the neighbourhood with near-fluency in the Dutch language.

No, the weird thing is how difficult it is for me sometimes to answer their translation requests. It's not that I don't understand the words they're asking me to translate. It's not even that I lack the vocabulary in other languages to translate them. It's just that except for very simple everyday words, I just can't seem to be able to do literal translations at all!

It's a really weird feeling. For all intents and purposes, I am trilingual: I speak three different languages with approximately the same level of command (I wish I could say I am fluent in those three languages, but that would be a lie. Worse, since I hardly ever use my mother tongue, I am actually losing command of it! I speak it with an accent for instance). At home I speak Dutch nearly exclusively. At work I use Dutch or English depending on the situation and the people I'm talking to. Then there is my mother tongue, French, which I only speak when talking to French colleagues, or on the phone to my relatives. I'm used to mix and (mis)match languages. I can code-switch easily, or jump from language to language without a heartbeat. This goes so far that I sometimes use the wrong language without even realising it!

Being a polyglot does strange things to the mind. I understand perfectly the concept of gezelligheid. But translating it to English would require at least a paragraph, and to French I'd probably need a dissertation! In the same way, I know exactly what French people mean with a connerie. But explaining that concept to a Dutch or an English person is next to impossible (equivalents exist, but they fail to capture the images that the French word evoke. And note that if you plan to look for the meaning of that word, it belongs to a rather foul register of language. You have been warned). I may not be fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I have to admit that different languages bring about quite different views of the world.

People sometimes ask me which language I think in, or which language I dream in. These are trick questions, in that I don't have a clear answer myself. Usually I answer: "whatever language I've been speaking at the time". But reality is subtler: often my thoughts are language-less, mere concepts that agglutinate together in my mind and translate into language at the last moment, and normally in the language I am speaking at the time (short-circuits do happen sometimes, usually with hilarious results, at my expense naturally...). This means that I often have difficulties finding the right words to express myself. I have this concept in my mind which is extremely clear to me, and cannot find a good word or expression in any language to express it. Nearly everyone has times when they cannot find their words. Now imagine how it must be not to be able to find your words in three different languages!

Actually that might explain why I have so much difficulty doing literal translations. Going from word to concept in my mind is an easy thing, and it goes directly without translation, whatever language it is. However, the other way round is more difficult, especially when I still have that original word in my head restricting me to a particular facet of the concept it represents. Words in different languages never represent exactly the same thing, unless they refer to a specific concrete or abstract item. I'm extremely envious of all those simultaneous translators out there. I wish I had the same abilities (although I must say it's relatively easier to translate full sentences than single words. I'm relatively good at non-literal translation. But I cannot do it as fast as all those interpreters).

What's the point of this post? Oh, I have the exact concept in my head, but I just cannot find the right word to represent it :-) . In any case, I'm curious how other bilingual or multilingual people experience it. Do you have difficulties translating from one language to the other, or is it second nature? Do you think in a particular language, or are your thoughts more visual, or even without real form at all?

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