By Rupal Ramesh Shah 

Today we live in a very connected world, where people are able to communicate across national borders and even continental divides, with the help of technology and convenient travel options. However, language barriers still remain. 

Rupal Ramesh Shah

Some might say that English is a universal language since it’s spoken by many people as a result of colonization. However, it is not the top-most spoken language in the world. Mandarin is the language spoken by the highest number of people, followed by English. Hindi is the third most commonly spoken language in the world. However, a majority of people, collectively around the world, have more exposure to English than to Mandarin and Hindi. Hence, English is considered somewhat of a global language and is widely used in international business, tourism, technology, and much more. Nevertheless, people born and raised in different parts of the world who try to communicate in English must overcome language barriers related to culture. 

I have recently been assisting as an interpreter for a family of refugees. Since they spent a majority of their lives in Tanzania, they are fluent in Swahili, one of my native languages. Therefore, I am able to translate for them since they don’t speak much English. From the time that they arrived on American soil, it’s been interesting to witness their journey as newcomers to this culture, country, and language. What I am increasingly learning to understand is that some words are difficult to translate into English and vice versa, as they lose their true meaning during the translation process. 

For example, in Swahili we have a phrase jamani which is used to exclaim and show surprise. It could be used positively or negatively, but always with lots of emotions. The closest translation may be “oh wow,” but the correct translation depends on the way it is used during communication. Such a word not only loses its meaning when translated into English, but it also loses the emotion associated with it. I have learned to appreciate that words have emotions behind them, and while the meanings may be retained during translation, the emotions behind the words can be lost. 

I lived and worked in Haiti for several years, where the word tet chaje is used commonly in conversations. In Haitian Creole, the word tet chaje literally means “a charged head.” People say “tet chaje” when describing a reaction to anything complex, such as a difficult pregnancy, or something trivial, such as a child testing poorly on a school quiz. Hence, the word carries different levels of emotion, based on the sentence in which it is being used. 

Context is critical during translation because not all things are created equal everywhere! While we know that every country has its own systems and processes, it’s even more crucial to understand those differences during translation. One example is how different the educational systems are in Tanzania versus the U.S. In Tanzania, the school systems are separated into “primary” and “secondary” education. In the U.S., children attend “elementary,” “middle,” and then finally “high school,” before college or university. While secondary school in Tanzania lasts six years, high school education in the U.S. lasts for four years. However, only upon completion of secondary school in Tanzania or high school in the U.S., are students eligible for college or university. The names and systems are unique, but the pathways lead to similar end goals. Therefore, in such instances room must be made in the translation for additional information to provide context. 

In addition to context, culture also plays a significant role in languages. For example, in languages such as Swahili, elders are often addressed with a different word to say “hello” than contemporaries. That’s because elders are very much respected, viewed as wise, and addressed more formally. While I would say “shikamo” to my parents, I could say “jambo” to my siblings. In fact, in most cases, saying “jambo” to elders is considered impolite, and almost rude. Both words have the same meaning, but in Swahili they carry a different level of importance. 

Translation from one language to another is complicated and not always straightforward. While I translate for the family from Tanzania, I try to keep in mind the emotion, context, and culture associated with the words. I do my best in interpreting Swahili to English but know that there may still be barriers to providing exact translations in some cases. Therefore, it’s necessary to not only communicate clearly during translations, but to also spend time understanding the other person’s culture and traditions in order to truly gain a deeper understanding of their language. As someone who lives in both cultures at the same time, it’s equally important to contextualize the words during conversations.