I needed a dictionary the other day, what in itself isn’t something completely unusual. There was this word I needed in an email that was on the tip of my tongue (or my brain) and just wouldn’t come out. I knew that the only other word I could think of just wasn’t 100% right. So I tried to force my brain into releasing the information. It was a bit like my regular struggle with the house keys in my large handbag. I know they’re in there, I can hear them when I shake the bag, I just can’t seem to get hold of them.
My brain won in the end and I had to settle for the not-quite-right, second best word. Partly because I was too proud to use a dictionary. See, the thing is, I was struggling with a German word. It’s what I call ‘lost in translation’.
That’s the thing about moving to another country. You double up. You’ve got two SIM cards, two bank accounts, two sets of loyalty cards, two wallets (because those two types of coins always end up mysteriously mixing when you have to pay for something), and, in my case, two wardrobes at two different addresses (some women might go “YES!” now, but let me tell you, there’s a reason why you left some stuff behind) and two languages.
And here’s where ‘lost in translation’ comes in. Because I have been in situations where I lack the right words or have too many of them. Whereas in the beginning I lacked mostly the correct English words, the boundaries seem to blur now. I have caught myself unintentionally slipping a word from “the other” language into a conversation or having to stop because I can only think of one way of saying something with that single perfect word… which is in the wrong language.
He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Then there are what we called ’false friends’ at school; words that look and sound familiar in both languages but mean quite different things. I remember one phone conversation with my parents during which I mentioned my rent several times. Problem was, I used “Rente” what actually means “pension” in German. Fortunately they understood me anyway. Or in the early days when I was having dinner at a friend’s house and wanted to clear the table. “I just get the tablet”, I announced and was greeted with a puzzled look. I had meant “tray” but had used an anglicised pronunciation of “Tablett”, the German word for “tray”.
I have certainly doubled up on ‘colourful words’ and noticed that certain situations require the use of a certain language. When it comes to car travel I am definitely a bilingual swearer.
Everybody who knows me will confirm that I am not an early morning person and rather need my time getting used to the idea of getting up and ready, resulting in me being a bit ‘last minute’ on my way to work and rather in a hurry. (And don’t try to have a serious conversation with me before I had my first cup of coffee!) If another driver pulls up in front of me, going particularly slow, I will shout “Move it!” or hiss a defeated “Seriously?”. Maybe it’s just my subconscious wish that he/she would understand me and hurry up. In other situations however I might shout rather loudly “Blinken wäre super!” (“indicating would be grand!”) if a fellow driver can’t be asked to make use of these small yellow flashing lights that come attached to the car and can be operated quite easily and comfortably to indicate a change of direction.
Overall I feel blessed and fortunate to be able to live in two different societies and cultures. It might give me a bad back one day because my handbag has to be double the size now and is twice as heavy but it also gives me new places, new habits, new challenges, new people and new ways of doing things. And after all, double the amount of words to express myself.