February 27, 2015


I have been playing an ongoing game of charades for two weeks.

I made the decision to move to Madrid and work with Soulsight for my second term with Experience institute. Not only is the work new and exciting, but it’s also in Spanish. … and my rusty Spanish is Mexican-Spanish, not Spain-Spanish.

It’s not that my co-workers and I don’t understand one another; I’ve been able to keep up with and participate in the majority of our discussions. But every once in a while I will be riding the wave of conversation and then BAM! I am left swimming without my surfboard. I know what the culprit is too: Los dichos.

Los dichos, or sayings, are the phrases, slang, or words we use that do not directly translate into another language. I know a bunch from Mexico - vato (dude), dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres (birds of a feather flock together) – but zero from Spain. Not to mention that all of the palabrotas (curse words) I know from Mexico don’t have the same negative meaning here and are used everyday. It took me a week before I would say, “¿me coja una soda?” (get me a soda). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… (an american dicho).

Last week I translated a proposal for a company that makes catheters (I learned a bunch of new words during this one!). Things were going well until I got to a certain phrase: “las palancas de inspiración.” I understood the direct translation. Palancas - lever, inspiración - inspiration, but “levers of inspiration” didn’t make sense in English. I understood the sentido (meaning) of the dicho - the exchange of energy to lift or move something - but there wasn’t a direct translation to English. I tried motivation, tools, leveraging, and nothing seemed to fit. At another point I was faced with entender (to understand) and comprender (to understand). I understood these words to be interchangeable. That’s why I was stumped when they were listed right after each other in the steps of a process: 1) entender 2) comprender. It turns out that entender is to understand something, while comprender is to really “get” it.

And that’s the best translation I can come up with so far.

I accept that there are millions of words I do not know. When my partner in the project, Álvaro, and I get to a point where we can’t explain something to each other in either Spanish or English, we bust out pen and paper and start sketching or act it out so that the other can guess the meaning. Todays spontaneous game of pictionary and charades included my co-worker explaining a surgical procedure and me describing when we moved my house down the street. (Yes, we moved the actual house…) Those are things you don’t learn to say in Spanish class. Sure I can ask Dondé está la biblioteca or tengo que usar el baño, but those aren’t exactly useful phrases when I’m trying to negotiate deals and create new processes to sell kitchens in IKEA.

Language is a fickle thing. We use words, sentences and phrases to transfer meaning. The thought-stuff that is inside our heads that we code into words and spit out to be received and decoded into more thought-stuff in a different brain. It’s complicated and we don’t all do it the same way. That is why we have “miscommunication” or why we have a thought that we can’t put into words. It is also why we can convey something deep that no dictionary could explain, with something as simple as un abrazo. Meaning to meaning. Though I might not always entender everything that my colegas at Soulsight say, I do comprender that they care and respect me. From the moment I walked through the door I felt like I was part of their team.

Often we see language as the biggest barrier between people. Wars have been fought simply because people couldn’t communicate. And while it is true that sometimes complex topics like politics, legal discrepancies, or even catheters require a deep understanding of the language, the most complex feelings can be told without exchanging a single word. Sometimes we get so caught up in the dichos and details of life that we forget that we are all human, and that we share “meanings,” even if we don’t share a native tongue.

Sometimes, we just have to play charades and act it out.

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