Translating Love letters:

A Tale of Two Cultures
February 15, 2022 by
Translating Love letters:
Maria Apgar
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A couple of decades ago, long before I had plans of starting a translation company, a friend of mine entrusted me with translating a set of love letters from English into Spanish. I took the job without much consideration. After all, how difficult could it be? I translated very complex and technical documents every day, Spanish was my native language and I was fully proficient in English. Little did I know then that this would the most difficult job I had ever done. I was about to learn a lesson first-hand about how nuanced different types of translation could be, alongside all the traps and pitfalls love and romance entail on their own. It turns out that expressing your feelings in another language takes more than knowing how to say “I love you.”  This is something that transcreators, translators with the skill to adapt a text to best convey its meaning, style, and evoke emotions tied to a particular cultural background, understand well.

Most people think that bilingual people express their feelings in their first language, because it is presumed that the first language is closely linked to their values and emotions. However, that’s not the case for everyone, including myself.  Jean-Marc Dewaele, a linguistics researcher and the author of a paper entitled “Emotions in Multiple Languages,” suggests that bilingual people prefer one language over the other depending on the type of emotion they are experiencing. He even implies that bilingual people experience changes in personality and behavior depending on the language they are using. For instance, some people might curse in their first language because it feels more real and they won’t even take offense when cursed at in a second language.

There is further evidence that polyglots have a more complex emotional attachment to language. Judith Kroll, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, has found powerful evidence of just such emotional connections to each language. Her research measuring brain activity showed that when bilingual people are reading, hearing or speaking, both languages are continually active. When a bilingual person reads in their second language, it tends to activate the part of the brain associated with translation, and therefore also involves their first language. A study with Chinese students proficient in English showed that when presented with positive, neutral and negative words, translations were activated only for positive and neutral words. It was as if they were internally censoring the negative words from being translated suggesting that the brain protects bilinguals from feeling negative emotions .

Shifting from one culture framework to another depending on the language used is known as cultural frame-switching. This can guide bicultural individuals’ feelings, thoughts, and actions.  As a matter of fact, culture-specific cues can elicit culture-specific attributions and values. For example, in one study Chinese American individuals were primed in English with Chinese or American cues. Then, they were shown an image of a single fish swimming ahead of a group of fish. People primed with Chinese cultural cues were more likely to say the fish was out in front because he’d been kicked out by the group or because the group told him to go ahead and find food for them. People who had gotten the American cultural cues said the fish was going ahead because it was his idea or he wanted to.

The connection between language, emotion, and culture has to be considered when translating any text, not only emotionally charged content like love letters or marketing materials, to reach a particular demographic. Medical encounters are emotionally charged in their own right. Patients that can’t fully communicate with their providers might be anxious. They might miss important information or won’t be able to describe accurately their condition. Research has shown that effective doctor-patient communication can improve patient satisfaction, adherence to treatment, and disease outcomes.

Translations of intake forms, informed consents, discharge instructions, or any other medical document can help ease patients fears. Making the effort of developing translations that take into account the patient’s perspective of symptoms and explanatory health belief models can increase patient trust, and compliance. In addition, these documents must have clear and familiar language and should be developed within a cultural context .

As for the love letters I was asked to translate back in the 90’s, well things didn’t turn out as my friend or I had hoped. He was Chinese and his love interest lived in Latin America. She was showing interest in even visiting him in China, but one day her letters stopped. While I will never know for sure what the reason was, I now suspect it was a misunderstanding regarding a Chinese tradition. He asked her for a photograph of her and she sent one, but what I didn’t understand at the time was that in his mind, that actually meant they were now engaged to be married! I’ve had trouble researching this tradition since then, and with the advent of online dating it’s reasonable to think it would have changed. Whether it was a common practice in his community back then, or simply in his own head I’ll never know. Nevertheless, I’ve never lost the lesson that cultural framing is of the utmost importance, in love and beyond.

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