The Joys and Woes of Being Multilingual
Table of Contents
In 2004, the German band Rammstein released a song called Amerika. The chorus went something like this:
We’re all living in Amerika
Amerika ist wunderbar
We’re all living in Amerika
Despite the lyrics that said America is “wonderful” (wunderbar), the song was anything but a celebration of American culture. One of the reasons that this German band was unhappy with the status quo was made evident in the bridge:
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
I don’t sing my mother’s tongue
No, this is not a love song…
Rammstein got it right almost two decades ago: with the advent of globalism, English was already asserting itself as the dominant language in entertainment, oftentimes at the expense of local languages and culture.
Why League of Legends doesn’t work in Romanian #
I worked on the Romanian version of League of Legends between 2014 and 2016. Before that, I’d never played the game in Romanian. The first time I tried it, I just… couldn’t. The voices weren’t terrible (some were actually good). The actual voice lines? No. Just no..
Mistranslations aside, the whole game felt unnatural to me, having grown up with English-language games only. Many of the core terms defining gameplay mechanics, such as damage, hit points or ability power, had no passable equivalent in Romanian, and the words that Riot had chosen to go with felt like poor substitutes.
This wasn’t entirely Riot’s fault, mind. Romania had been on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain long enough that Romanian and Western entertainment were greatly out of sync, especially where niche areas like science-fiction and fantasy were concerned. This disconnect, in turns, created the perfect linguistic vacuum for English to fill.
Tell that to the Romanian gamers, though1.
I wanted to live in America, too #
When I was a kid, I dreamed of leaving my native Romania and go live in New York, where all the exciting things happened2. To do that, I had to learn English. first.
Since all American TV programs were subbed rather than dubbed, I immerseed myself in shows like the ‘92 Marvel cartoons (X-Men and Spider-Man), Transformers: Beast Wars (and Beast Machines, which was my gateway into the Transformers universe), or the Men in Black and Godzilla animated spin-offs.
I have fond memories of this one.
My family didn’t have a VCR, but we did have a cassete recorder, so I got as many episodes as I could on tape and used to listen to one or two every night before I went to sleep. That’s how I started to pick up the spoken language, even though I still didn’t understand half the words. Over time and with plenty of repetition, I learned more and more, until I could confidently listen to an entire episode of, say, Starship Troopers and understand pretty much all of it.
Written English, meanwhile, more or less happened to me when I discovered fanfiction. I went from reading fanfiction to slogging my way through bootleg PDFs of American books3 and, before I knew it, I was writing in English, too. It took me some years to master the language enough to really start understanding things like subtlety and nuance.
As I split my time writing in both languages, something interesting began to happen: my writing took on a very different tone depending on the language I used. Almost like different kinds of inspiration, if you will.
The theory of linguistic relativity #
Linguistic relativity (or the Sapir-Whorf hyphotesis) proposes that “the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview or cognition.” As a speaker of about four and a half languages, that makes sense to me.
My understanding of English is on par with a native speaker’s. I was raised speaking Romanian, but I’ve been thinking and functioning primarily in English for the past twenty years or so. There are absolutely differences between the two that go beyond simple word parity.
I’ll use an obvious example: Romanian is a gendered language and English isn’t. That is, all Romanian nouns have a gender (male or female), and all adjectives have a masculine or feminine form, depending on the noun. This goes for people, too; if you have, say, Marcu (male) and Alina (female), and you want to say one of them is tall, Marcu is “înalt”, but Alina is “înaltă” (note the “ă” at the end).
Going back to how language shapes your cognition, I use they/them pronouns in English, but Romanian doesn’t have an equivalent, so the whole concept of a nonbinary person is a lot harder to explain. When talking about myself, I switch between masculine- and feminine-form adjectives and heavily favor the former, but that feels wrong, too.
Inanimate things having their own gender also brings with it a host of innate associations with masculine or feminine traits. Someone whose first language isn’t gendered (like English or Japanese) won’t have any of those associations.
I had a brief chat recently with someone who thought a move towards a global language (not English, they said) would be the better way. When I suggested having a universal trade language but encouraging folks to keep their own language as well, they argued against what they saw as forcing people to speak two languages.
I’m coming at this from the other end: while languages naturally change and evolve other time, and some of them die out, having one and only one language worldwide would be nothing short of a cataclysmic tragedy.
Translation vs. transcreation #
When a language disappears, we lose more than just the words themselves. Some things don’t work outside of the socio-cultural and historical framework where they came to be. As someone who’s fluent in Japanese, I can’t picture how Japanese honorific speech could ever work in English. It took me a couple years living in Japan before I got it right more often than getting it wrong, and even then I sometimes used the wrong pronoun for “I” or “me”4.
My own humble language has nuance that gets inevitably lost in translation. Take the following paragraph, for instance, written by Romanian author Ioan Luca Caragiale circa 1901 (from Cănuță om sucit):
Popa și-a sumes iute mânicile și l-a scos cât a putut mai degrab la aer. Mititelul era vânăt ca un ficat de bivol bătrân; nici miau nu mai zicea; clipea numai din ochișorii lui cârpiți ca un broscoi în pierzare.
Here’s how it might sound in English today (this is more or less a literal translation):
The priest quickly rolled up his sleeves and rushed [the baby] outside as fast as he could. The little thing was purple like the liver of an old buffalo; couldn’t even say meow anymore; all he did was blink his patched-up eyes like a dying toad.
Not even close, and not just because we’re talking old Romanian from the turn of the last century vs. modern-day English. The jocular, sometimes irreverent tone of Caragiale’s novellas is as much a product of its time as it is hard to capture in any other language. You can transcreate, sure, but you lose a lot of meaning even as you’re striving to preserve the vibe.
A transcreated version of the paragraph above might look something like this:
Padre rolled up his sleeves and rushed out with the baby. The poor little thing was purple in the face5 and didn’t so much as whimper anymore. All he did was blink his eyes sluggishly, like a toad on dry land.
Still doesn’t hold a candle to the original, but at least it’s palatable.
Caragiale wrote satire and was known for his biting pieces that frequently criticized the real or imagined failures of his contemporaries. Any work of his that’s both translated and sanitized of context becomes nothing more than frivolous, mass-consumption entertainment.
There’s plenty enough of that, I think.
Note that my use of the word gamer here isn’t meant to be pejorative. I don’t subscribe to the fringe view that “gamer” is a dirty word. I’m a gamer, too. ↩︎
I know better now. ↩︎
Keep in mind that this was Romania circa 2002. Most of these books hadn’t even been translated yet, and English editions were only available in a handful of bookstores around the country and also very, very expensive (we’re talking “a quarter of your monthly wage” expensive).
I usually don’t advocate for book piracy these days–unless we’re talking about folks who can’t afford Western prices and those who live under regimes that practice censorship. Shades of grey, people. Shades of grey. ↩︎
If anyone’s curious, this page gives a rundown of Japanese personal pronouns and how they’re used. ↩︎
If I were doing this translation as a paid gig, I’d check to see if there was some other culturally-appropriate analogy I could use; I’m not sure “old buffalo liver” works with an American readership, say. ↩︎