What it feels like to be lost in translation

The reason I had never watched Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is excruciatingly ironic: in its translation to my first language, Portuguese, the movie’s title was just plain boring. “Encounters and mismatches” (my closest translation of a bad translation) never really caught my eye. But, mostly because of quarantine boredom, I came across it on a nightly Netflix scroll and didn’t see a good reason not to click on it. The movie follows two American strangers who meet on a trip to Japan, and it portrays the loneliness of being far away from home, where no one speaks your language and whatever it is you want to say gets lost in translation. That’s not exactly my situation–I’m from Brazil, my first language is Portuguese, and nine months out of the year I live in the United States; I’ve been fluent in English for over eight years, and I have been reading, writing, and watching movies in English. The language itself isn’t the problem; I’ve always found it easy to express myself through writing in English–it’s no coincidence that my major is Creative Writing. Instead, the problem is often just saying–not speaking, saying. The problem are those mysterious metaphorical centimeters between the brain and the lips, that fraction of a second between thinking something and saying it out loud. That’s why I’m so glad I watched Lost in Translation: it’s a feeling so specific, so hard to put into words–and often so lonely–that there is something special about this quietly dazzling movie saying something that is so recognizable to your own life. 

It’s not something you can begin to grasp unless you speak two or more languages. Not only that, but your fluency needs to be more than theoretical–you need to know what it’s like to live through and in these languages, to meet people and know people and love people in them, to navigate life without the choice to go back to whichever one you’re most comfortable with. I started studying English at the age of four and by eleven I was fluent, but it wasn’t until I was seventeen and left my home country to go to college in the US that I finally began to really understand how different the world can be as seen through two different dictionaries.

I’ve read it a million times on a thousand different websites and books that “people have different personalities in different languages,” and the truth is I only wish it were that simple. My personality is always the same, English or Portuguese. The things I love and hate, my most adored childhood memories, my dreams and fears, the things I don’t believe in and the few I do–they are all the same in spite of whichever country I’m in or whoever are the people I’m telling them to. What seems to change, at least in my experience, is the way I can translate all these feelings and thoughts from abstract colors flowing restlessly around my brain into concrete, pre-existing words that someone taught me once. When it comes to my first language, Portuguese, it’s very easy, and hardly because of the language itself. It’s not because of any particular characteristics of grammar or vocabulary; it’s easy because from the very first day of my life, I learned the world–every detail, every color, every shade and shadow and term of endearment–through this very specific set of words and set of rules. It is as if at the moment I was born, someone placed on my tiny face a pair of glasses, and everything I ever learned about the world and about myself was through these two lenses that I grew so, so used to, that I often forgot they weren’t an inherent part of my body. And then one day I got on a plane, read a few chapters of whatever book it was, took a nap, and twelve hours later my glasses had become blurry and strange and every color looked just a little off.

Seeing the world through the lenses of a second language isn’t something that can be taught in school. It’s not something that I learned in any classes, or in my five years of English courses, or the hundreds of books I read in English or the tests I took to get into college. The glasses of my second language weren’t automatically gifted to me the moment I wrote my first short story in English or moved into my dorm room in Ohio. They have little to do with fluency or vocabulary or knowledge of grammatical rules. It is, in essence, a kind of fluency that only exists as a consequence of repetitiveness, of being almost tiredly used to speaking the language. It is the fluency in translating the utter abstraction of your thoughts into words someone else will understand, and that is something which is really only acquired with time and experience.

Living in your second language is often a lonely thing. You might speak everyone else’s language, but it feels as if no one speaks yours. Little stutters and tiny mistakes feel scarier, as if every American who listens will look at you like you’re irrevocably stupid; you might know every word and every rule in your head, but by a result of plain lack of practice, words come out as if someone else thought them for you. The things you think take a second extra to take shape into sounds, and sometimes, by force of habit and expected social behavior, that’s longer than you must wait to begin speaking. It feels lonely because, as much as you can communicate on a fundamental level, you know everyone has different glasses on, and the world you see is just a little blurrier, the colors in slightly different shades. 

When I moved away, I didn’t imagine it would feel like this to speak a language that I chose to learn, that I choose to create in and–curiously–easy to express myself in through writing. And yet what I feel is so surprisingly similar to what the two strangers at the center of Lost in Translation do, even though they barely speak a word of Japanese. I’m speaking and listening and communicating, but there seems like there is a thin, sheer veil between what I want to say and what my lips manage to let out–which is probably why it feels so simple, so flowy and easy to write. I have time to breathe. There isn’t an easy answer or epiphanic solution–it’s the way it is, part of a deal that, considering the perks of living through a beautiful fall and studying the thing I love, is absolutely worth it. What I know is that ever since I moved away, no sound sends chills of happiness through my body like the simple sound of anyone speaking Portuguese, the familiar accent of Rio, strong Rs and rhythmic whispered Ss, music to my ears. Even with the loneliness that sometimes comes with living in a world made up of a language that doesn’t feel like yours, there are still so many glances of joy and understanding in the unknown; there are phone calls home, people who will learn words just to make you smile, old songs you heard as a kid, good movies that quietly understand you–and ultimately, in these lucky moments when you can grasp home, there is a sort of blissful luck in recognizing the shadows of a world you know in the shades of beautiful colors you are seeing as if for the first time.

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