Lost in Translation

“Is my husband pregnant?” Aleftina Alieva, who was filling out medical forms, asked her new Canadian doctor. Her doctor stared at her for a moment, then burst into laughter. Everybody else in the hospital waiting room soon followed suit.

Alieva, a native Russian, moved to Canada 10 years ago and frequently visits her granddaughter, Lia Signaevskaia (12), in the United States. She relies on Signaevskaia to translate English for her on a daily basis — though, needless to say, she will never forget the definition of “pregnant.”

Although Alieva attempts to overcome her language barriers by reading English whenever she sees it, she finds the language difficult to grasp.

“When we ride in the car, it will be quiet and we can see my grandma in the back just reading every single sign on the road, practicing her English,” Signaevskaia said. “Sometimes she translates the running news [tickers] on TV; if she gets them wrong, it becomes kind of hilarious. The meaning becomes distorted and it’s funny, but it’s OK, we correct [her].”

As her grandmother’s usual translator, Signaevskaia sometimes struggles to delineate between English and Russian when she is speaking to her grandmother.

“When I have to describe what happened at school [to my grandmother] and I have to convert pretty much everything and all the conversations to [Russian], sometimes I really have to think about it and find the right words,” Signaevskaia said.

When Alieva does not have Signaevskaia to translate for her, she thinks carefully about the grammatical structure of her sentences and finds that communicating with people is often made easier if they are friendly. Alieva remembers taking English classes when she was in school 60 years ago, but said that “it was not serious, only for a [grade].” Now Alieva concedes that it is more difficult for her to learn another language now that she is older.

Signaevskaia, however, does not share her grandmother’s troubles. Signaevskaia is fluent in English, Russian and French, and is currently taking AP Spanish Language. Unlike her grandmother, Signaevskaia’s multilingual abilities enable her to easily navigate through other countries.

“I can go to different countries now and talk,” Signaevskaia said. “I’ve been to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, and I’ve spoken Spanish there. I’ve been to Quebec and France, and I’ve spoken French there. I directed expeditions with my grandparents and my mom because they don’t speak French.”

Signaevskaia’s skill with languages gives her an intimate knowledge of subtle discrepancies between languages — which are especially noticeable in translated literature.

“When you translate from a different language to English, you miss little details that are native to the language or culture,” Signaevskaia said. “I can get a feel of those. When [we] read ‘Crime and Punishment’ in 10th grade, I was [also] reading it in Russian, and when Raskolnikov called his mother, he called her in a certain way, but that was just like ‘mom’ in the English translation. I could relate to the different ways of talking among the different classes; I could see that [in the Russian version], but not the English version.”

Theo Douwes (10), however, likes to pay attention to the similarities between languages. Douwes, who is fluent in English, French and Dutch, has noticed that descriptive phrases are similar in Germany and Holland, a fact he feels indicates similarities between the two cultures. Despite his wide breadth of linguistic knowledge, Douwes often finds that when he travels abroad, communicating in spoken language is cumbersome.

“I think a lot of the time, it’s better to communicate through actions, since movements are a kind of international language,” Douwes said.

AP World History teacher Chris Drake tends to rely on the “international language” by “pointing and smiling” when he is travelling and trying to interact with someone who does not speak English. But sometimes the crudeness of body language poses problems.

“I was pulled over for speeding in Morocco, and I don’t speak Arabic or French well enough to explain, so I was basically telling the policeman the radar detector was broken, and we got into this discussion, with me speaking English and them speaking Arabic, and they let me use the radar gun and eventually let me go,” Drake said.

While Spanish teacher Leonor Youngblood has also traveled the world, she found the three years she lived in Japan particularly “difficult” and unlike her previous international experiences.

“Japan was a culture shock,” Youngblood said. “People are polite [and] extremely respectful, but not necessarily warm or welcoming to foreigners in the sense that Latinos, you know, make you a brother right away.”

According to Youngblood, her experiences overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers abroad have helped her empathize with other people.

“You understand that you’re just one more person in the world who feels [and] experiences everything the same,” Youngblood said.

Drake, like Youngblood, has found travelling to be an enlightening experience. He said the most important lesson he has learned is that “there’s more than one way to do things.”

“People get stuck in the American way of doing things, or their way of doing things, but when you travel the world, you see that there’s lots of ways of doing things, from simple things to feeding your family to running a nation or running a country,” Drake said. “That’s the great part. People all over the world are wonderful; there’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

While traveling abroad is not without mishaps and misunderstanding, it provides a fertile opportunity to explore new ways of communicating.