Language, culture, and identity——a translation tip that I learned after watching a lot of Doctor Who

Language is a weird thing. It’s external but also integral to our human psyche. By the time you’ve learned to speak, you become situated, recognizably to all including yourself, in the world. But if language has such a formational functionality, it must mean that when we learn a second language, we are to some extent repeating a similar process of becoming situated——or re-situated——in the world through the new language.

Many bilingual people experience a certain disparity or disconnect between the person they are when speaking one language and the person they become when they speak the other. The degree to which they switch over depends, they say, on things like whether they are talking to a group of people who only understand one of the languages they speak, which country they are currently in, and how much time they’ve just spent speaking just one of the languages continuously.

That probably is the reason why translation and interpreting require a completely different skillsets and brain energy than simply being able to speak more than one language.

I’m fluent in both English and Japanese but I grew up speaking the latter language for the first 16 years of my life. Naturally, I have a much larger vocabulary in Japanese. At the same time, I have a lisp in Japanese and not in English. So there certainly is a difference in fluency but it’s more complicated than just first language versus second language, and I don’t feel particularly more comfortable speaking one over the other.

Because I speak two languages, sometimes I get asked by friends to translate things, like an essay, an academic abstract, an email correspondence, a short film, a Facebook post, a government-issued document, etc. At work and events, I often volunteer to interpret for those who do not speak the same language. But I am seriously, tremendously bad at doing those things.

When I was in college I got a job as a translator for one of the university’s research centers. Every time I submitted my translation, the leader of the translation team, who was working as a professional translator outside school, would say, “your translation is so unique and creative.” In other words, my translation may not have necessarily been bad but not professional. The way I translate things is, I read the original text, take it in, and say it in the target language, maybe paragraph by paragraph. I’ve tried other methods but none of them worked for me.

So basically, I may speak two languages well enough for most everyday tasks, but my mind feels sort of split in half where I have to digest what comes to one of them and visualize or experience it so it can be transferred to the other. It takes a bit of time and energy, and when I have to interpret for others continuously for a long time, like 2-3 hours straight, I get really exhausted.

But reading about other bilingual people’s experiences, I realized I was not alone, and it’s pretty common to have as many, um, multiple personalities, if you will, as the number of languages they speak, because language and culture are one package and you can’t separate a language from its cultural background. You can easily find, for instance, the most politically correct English-speaking person who is full of slips of the tongue in the other language they speak.

What’s really interesting about this linguistic disconnect is that, in my case, it doesn’t happen when I try to speak English with British accent (at which I’m terrible, by the way). I noticed this when I was interpreting for my colleagues after spending all night watching British TV show Doctor Who. When it comes to accents, I get easily affected by the accent with which people surrounding me speak. When I’m in Osaka, I start to develop an Osaka accent within half a day. So that day, after quite an overdose of Docteh Who, I caught myself speaking with a slight British accent.

And it was way easier to translate, especially from Japanese to English, perhaps because British English is not part of who I am, has never really contributed in any way to the formation of my identity——it’s just a tool, no cultures attached. While North American English is my second language, British English is a foreign language. Foreign, but I know its words and grammars. I can just mechanically translate between Japanese and English, preserving the cultural weight of the Japanese, without any interference of American culture I am familiar with.

I wish I had known this trick when I started doing translation work. It works for me so well that I’d recommend that all translators and interpreters of English and Japanese should try it i.e. speak (orally or silently) with a foreign accent, no matter how bad it is. It might also work with any language combination where the cultural difference between the languages is huge.

Language and culture are inseparable. I knew that. I’d always known that because I studied Cultural Anthropology and Sociology and the like. But it wasn’t until I noticed that British English, for me, could be detached from culture and used solely as a speech tool, that I came to understand firsthand that, for me, North American English carried a heavy cultural weight, from which the language could not be separated.

Now, what languages do you think have affected your identity? Do you speak any language fluently that, however, has nothing to do with your identity, how you behave, or how you think?

Masaki C. Matsumoto
A Japan-based queer critic / writer / speaker / vlogger. UChicago MA dropout. My preferred pronouns are he/him/they/them. About me -

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: