Love by any other name

A rose by any other name would be as sweet, Shakespeare tells us, but not everyone agrees. An NY Times article sent in by an alert reader tells a different tale: words in other languages just may not mean as much to everyone. 

As someone who generally feels at ease in cultures not my own, I’m trying to weigh this, ask if it is true. On some level, I have to say that it is: culturally, things get lost in translation; I remember consistently being confused when I asked a foreigner if he wanted to do this or that, and his reply was “that’s Ok.” To his ear, this meant a polite yes; to mine, it meant a polite no.

But that’s simple lack of idiomatic translation. The idea that words mean less when they’re not in the language of your upbringing goes further. And I’m not sure I completely agree. I was perhaps more thrilled, not less, to be told affectionately “Je t’aime bien,” by a friend in France than I would be by a friend in the States saying the (more or less) equivalent “I love you, man.” A language not your own may still work its way deep into your heart. Sometimes it is merely by virtue of the fact that the person speaking the language is beloved; to hear “I love you” in any language, spoken with sincerity, is extremely moving as long as the translation is known. One watches the eyes, the voice, the intention, the kept promise, more than one watches the cultural diction. It’s amazing, really, how similar each culture’s facial expressions and moral tenants are (a frown is bad, a laugh is good, deception is bad, generosity is good).

And perhaps that’s this writer’s dilemma: doubting love (or anything) not because of language, but because of those unexpressed things, those nonverbals. Is an apparent lack of commitment real lack of commitment, or is it mere cultural rote? Does she doubt him because they don’t speak the same native language, or because he isn’t trustworthy?

This could apply to business as well as personal life, and the added obstacle here is our cultural delicacy — or indelicacy. We may be too PC to inquire into something we suspect might just be cultural difference, for example, and get cheated on a business deal. We may be too callous or xenophobic, and end up offending a potential business partner.

Whatever the case, language and culture continue to fascinate us and continue to demand education and better idiomatic translation, better localization. Making sure your actions match your words certainly doesn’t hurt in anyplace I’ve ever heard of, either.


Katie Botkin
Katie Botkin is a freelance writer. She has a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on linguistics and has taught English on three continents.

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