Can you be your authentic self in translation? And why can’t Geel tell a joke? - Multilingual Connections

Can you be your authentic self in translation? And why can’t Geel tell a joke?

can you be authentic in translation?
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We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!

Back when I was in college, I decided to spend my junior year in Spain. My classes were all in Spanish, and my fluency, which was already high going in, improved dramatically as I discussed pre-Socratic philosophy, modern art, and literature with my professors and classmates.

I found a community of Spanish friends, yet I realized that regardless of the time we spent together, they didn’t really know me. They knew “Geel” (their pronunciation of Jill). Geel was a nice girl, but she was more reserved, couldn’t tell a joke, and wasn’t able to participate on a deep level in their conversations. I realized I couldn’t fully be myself in Spanish; the authentic Jill was someone I could only be in English – not in translation. 

As a language company, we talk to clients all the time about authenticity. How to connect in meaningful ways with multilingual audiences. How to hear authentic stories. How to give voice to brands in a way that will resonate with people around the world. Many of our clients work in market research, and we guide them on the importance of linguistic and cultural nuance, how to approach the translation of surveys, the role that technology can play, and how having a bilingual moderator can be a game changer when conducting interviews or focus groups

Some clients tell us that they conduct their global research in English. Some tell us they use AI translation because it’s “good enough”. And sometimes “good enough” will be good enough. But when authentic stories matter – when nuance really matters – professional human translators and bilingual researchers make all the difference.

I was recently at a language industry conference, and during a small group discussion, the question of whether your personality changes when you’re speaking other languages came up. I was intrigued and posed the question to our global team, all of whom work in English but are native speakers of many different languages. Here are some highlights:

I feel like when I’m speaking in Japanese, I need to tone down my sarcasm level a little bit.

– Kentaro

I use English when communicating with Multilingual Connections, Greek with my family, and Latvian when I speak with the Latvian community in Greece or my family in Latvia. In Latvian, my personality slightly changes as Latvians are more reserved, and we don’t use a lot of non-verbal expressions. In Latvian, I can definitely express myself better and maybe joke more, as some things just don’t make sense in other languages. Also, many times, I use a kind of mixed language when speaking, for example, integrating some Greek phrases while speaking English.

– Sveta

I’ve never felt like my personality changes because of the language, but certain things definitely come more naturally in either English or Spanish to me. For example, whenever I watch a soccer match, it’s always in Spanish, and I’ll emote about it in Spanish as well, down to the curse words. I do think I’m most comfortable when I can skip back and forth between both Spanish and English, though, but it’s more because I feel like I can express certain feelings or thoughts with words that have specific connotations in either language. 

– Monica

sofia vergara and language inclusion

I don’t think my persona changes. However, there is a level of sarcasm or vulgarity that sounds better when I speak Yoruba. I do that a lot when having casual conversations. In English, I feel my thoughts are clearer. That said, English Ife might be too serious/formal, while Yoruba Ife might come off as jovial.

– Ife

My personality is somewhat different, probably because I view English as my “work” language, even though I likely speak more English than Spanish on an average day. I think I’m very polite in English and would love to be just as polite in Spanish. I even use different names in different languages/contexts.

– Pablo

I know I speak differently since the social norms in Korea, like many Asian cultures, are quite different from the US or the West, which means my speaking in Korean is often the byproduct of the particular situation I may be in and less about exactly what is on my mind. Speaking in Korean is often about what is not said but still said in a manner so that the implications are understandable.

– Michael

korean language inclusion

I have no doubt that I have a slightly different “persona” when I speak in Spanish vs. English. I also notice that the more immersed I get in one or the other language, the more pronounced the change gets.

– Carlos

I feel very different in both languages! For the longest time, I could express my emotions and thoughts in English way better, and I have always had a more “optimistic” thinking in English. Now, I express things much better in Turkish. It’s much easier to joke around in Turkish, though I also think I’m much of a realist in Turkish. The moment my subconscious is aware that the person across me speaks English, I switch to a mixed code of languages. If I want to talk to a mental health professional, I also make sure that they at least speak a certain level of English because, in such a setting that requires emotional conversations, I feel like I absolutely have to code-switch freely.

– Hatice

I feel that my personality does change a bit, but I am not sure to what degree. I may be feeling this way because I don’t feel as comfortable expressing myself in English compared to Turkish. That said, there are a couple of topics on which I am much more comfortable when I speak/listen to in English. 

– Akif

I don’t usually feel like a different person when speaking in English. However, when I get emotional, angry, or have to respond in a fast-paced situation, my English brain freezes, and my Spanish “auto-pilot” turns on. 

– Rosario  

I do feel like my personality changes a bit when speaking Spanish vs. English. However I must say that I get influenced quickly by the culture of the person I am speaking with.

– Alfredo

I absolutely agree with the different personalities in different languages. I feel like my voice changes when I speak English. I know I can’t express certain feelings or emotions fully in English and some things remain in Spanish in my brain, like counting and temperature, and reactions and gestures are different.

– Mariela 

I still feel like myself when I speak Spanish, but I can’t express myself to the same degree of nuance. People close to me understand this, but my own perception or concern – whether or not it’s true – is that some people don’t view me as smart or can only see a very superficial part of my personality. I’m so glad my husband is bilingual, too, so he really gets me in both languages. Humor is DEFINITELY different, though, and sometimes that gets lost. 

– Meredith

language inclusion

This is something I’ve thought about a lot, and for me, it has changed a lot over time. When I first lived in Chile I was very self-conscious about speaking Spanish, and it felt very performative, and I didn’t feel like I was the same person at all. But after a few years and after I gained comfort with having imperfect Spanish, I did feel like my personality became the same. It’s like now I am comfortable enough with my weird but fairly fluent Spanish that I act the same as I do in English. I definitely struggle to come up with words and express things; it is harder to joke, but I don’t feel that I am that different. 

– Katie

As a linguistic anthropologist, I find this topic fascinating. In my own doctoral research among speakers of a dying language, I focused on the connection between language and identity and how language choice in one context or topic – or even within the same sentence – often carried or created meaning far beyond the words. 

As owner of Multilingual Connections, though, I find these reflections exceptionally relevant to the work we do.  These comments illustrate just how important language is and, in many cases, how important it is to have the option of multiple languages and the freedom to code-switch between them. For researchers who are trying to get meaningful insights, giving participants a choice of language options matters. Allowing people to express themselves in ways that are most natural to them allows researchers to truly understand their thoughts, stories, and experiences. So, what does that mean for you? Just a few recommendations:

  1. Prioritize language in your research and be intentional about the decisions you make when fielding a study. 
  2. Offer language options for surveys. Your multilingual participants may indeed prefer to respond to a survey in English, but give them the option of their native language. 
  3. When translating surveys and other content, make sure you’re working with professional translators who are native speakers of the language, are from the specific region (e.g., French for Europe or for Canada), and have cultural insight and industry expertise.
  4. When conducting interviews or focus groups, it’s one thing to have an interpreter (sim trans), but it’s another thing entirely to have a cultural and linguistic insider as a moderator. A bilingual moderator can understand what’s being said and what’s not being said, can interpret subtleties like sarcasm and gestures, can probe in relevant ways, and translate the cultural context.

Making decisions around language can feel overwhelming when working on a complex global research project, but having a partner like Multilingual Connections to walk you through the options and help you make the best decision for your specific goals, budget, and timing can certainly help! Reach out to us for support, and let us help you create meaningful connections with your target audience.

Want to stay connected?

We periodically share news and updates around translation, language and culture. Rest assured we’ll never share your contact information with anyone!

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