Growing up in a bilingual environment (Catalan – Spanish) made me realize that not everything is translatable. A good translator will get through the essence, but still there are subtleties, nuances which are impossible to reciprocate. Little specific early examples I noticed are the catalan verbs caldre (something being necessary) or plegar (the act of finishing your workday), whose meaning is so specific that makes impossible the task of finding an equivalent in Spanish. And is not even about that. What I’m talking about is the fact that how a language sounds, conjugates and the culture around it also affects how we perceive the information.

In the Catalan poet Gemma Gorga’s memoir «Hi ha un país on la boira,» she discusses how once her American translator approached her to discuss the meaning of a word she used in one of her poems. The word was panera, which literally translates as the basket where bread is served. Gorga said how for her, though, that meaning is not even close to what it represented for her. For her and for many Catalan people, it is a tradition to go every morning to the forn (typical bakery) to pick up the recently baked bread. It’s a ritual, a tradition that symbolizes home. How can you explain that to an American whose breakfast might be cereals with milk or peanut butter with sandwich bread? You simply can’t. At least not fully. This reminds me of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and how Juan Antonio’s father refuses to translate his work for the same exact fear.

After living in England and spending most of my recent time traveling, I can say that for the last couple of years, I have mostly spoken in English. I now mostly think in English. That is why I’m actually writing this in the British language: I felt that doing it in Spanish would be artificial, as the original thought didn’t come in that language. But still, no matter how much I improve in English, most of my thoughts and references will always be in Spanish or Catalan, which I will never be able to fully translate, as I discussed at the beginning of the article.

This brings me to the main topic of the article: If we can’t share the depths of ourselves in our native language, won’t it always be a more superficial connection the one you have in, for instance, English compared to the one you might have with someone who speaks the same native language as you do? Can you truly connect with someone if you can’t share the totality of your identity with them? I want to believe we can.

In my opinion, we give too much power to words, and we are much more than what we say. Even in Spanish or Catalan, I will never be able to accurately and successfully express what is in my head (not because I lack vocabulary, but because the receiver will always receive partial information, compromised by their particular prism and personal experience). So what is the point of speech? Perhaps we give it too much importance. We over-intellectualize everything, labeling and categorizing every last aspect of our lives with words. But rain was falling and fire was burning before we named them. If we used language only as a practical tool (for example, to indicate where something is that someone else can’t find or to explain how something works), I’m sure we would be better off. If you stop and think about it, most of our problems are caused by words and how we receive them. We think we have this universal tool, and then we jump into disagreements constantly. How could it be?

When I discuss this topic with people, I always bring up the story of a girl I met on a project and how she fell in love with a guy without speaking the same language as him. They had no way of communicating (as he did not speak English) and yet, after weeks of spending a great deal of time together they began to feel fascinated by each other. They began to understand each other with glances and marvelled at what the other had to tell without words. In fact, perhaps if they had been able to talk it would have spoilt everything: he could be anything she wanted and vice versa, as there was no exchange of opinions or arguments. Was it any less genuine love? I don’t think so.

To a certain extent, I completely relate to that story, as my indicator of comfort and ease with someone is based on silence. The longer I can spend time without needing to fill voids, the more I know that’s the right person. I say that because when you actually stop giving unnecessary information and start looking around and listening, you start to speak a new language with the person. You notice their gestures, way of moving, expressions, little tics or behaviors. That is a universal truth. Those people are those things, and when you observe them, you really get to know them; you see their true uniqueness.

So, yes, maybe not everything is translatable but I don’t see how that could be a problem. Language is just another layer that completes the complexity of a person. A precious layer, no doubt, but not the only determining factor.