How come I can’t translate?

When I first moved to Brazil, I believed that the only way to learn a new language was to never translate.

[versão em português]

Emma Sheppard is a writer and an English teacher

When I first moved to Brazil, I believed, because I had been told over and over again, that the only way to learn a new language was to never translate, to teach and learn completely within English if that was the language you were trying to learn. In my time teaching English in Brazil, I learned, as I struggled through grammar explanations I myself could barely understand, that that rule wasn’t as sacred as I thought – there were holes in it. There were moments that slipping into Portuguese made learning better, not worse.

But I learned too, through my own experience, that there are limits to translation – context missing, idioms that you can’t quite understand. For the first six months, every time a student told me “te acalma” when I was waiting for their homework, I was offended, what was meant to be lighthearted in their language always sounded harsh in mine. And of course there was the fact that half of my students called me “tia”, despite the fact that I wasn’t their aunt, and that many of them were teenagers. No one could quite explain that one to me either, besides “this is what we do.”

When I returned to Canada, it was my turn to help students navigate the little moments in English that I hadn’t realized were difficult until the 10th time I explained them. The fact that we can’t say “good night” when we greet someone, or “congratulations” on someone’s birthday. Or just how it sounds when I hear someone say “thanks God” instead of “thank God”, so strange that it always makes me smile even though I know I shouldn’t.

Over all of the years of my learning Portuguese and teaching English, I have realized that it is often the tiniest parts of the language that are the most frustrating to learn, and the parts that go the furthest in helping us sound like we are truly confident in our new language. And these are the things that translation can’t help us with, that we can only get through listening, through trying, and through immersing ourselves in our new worlds. “Te acalma”, you’ll get there.

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