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lost in translation

I met a man named Jack in Kenya. He was one of our translators.

Before I went on this trip, I hadn’t considered the language barrier much. Everyone learns English in school, and whenever you speak publicly, there are translators.

So how hard could it be, really?

Those of you who have been in a similar situation are laughing really hard right now. First of all, there are the many words that just don’t translate – i.e. there is no y’all in Swahili. Second, just because the words translate doesn’t mean the meaning does. All those expressions that everyone knows here? They don’t. Even the simplest cultural references have to be thought through: the sentence I ran to the grocery store (implying, actually, that I drove) should be I went to the market if I want the people I’m talking to to have any idea what I’m talking about.

You realize very quickly how much you depend on a shared background, a common experience, to communicate.

Finally, there’s also the simple fact that English spoken by a Kenyan is quite different from English spoken by an American. A Southern American, at that.¬†Accents were hard to understand (on both sides); many words that were common to both languages were pronounced in entirely different ways. I was constantly amazed how hard it could be for two people speaking the same language who both really wanted to communicate could still completely miss the mark.

Our group traveled with Jack one day to a conference in a town that took about 2 1/2 hours to drive to – over difficult, potholed roads through an extremely rural area. As we bounced along, we peppered Jack with questions about things we saw along the way. He in turn, asked us about similar things in the US. Jack was eager to talk, and friendly. Still though, about a third of the time, we would ask a question that we thought was totally clear, and he would answer, obviously thinking he was being totally clear as well. And we would have no idea what he was talking about – or even if it was a case of him misunderstanding our question, or if it was something so foreign to our experience that the answer just didn’t make sense. It was baffling.

We were speaking the same language, technically, but we couldn’t understand.


It’s hit me again and again, since I’ve been home, that we do this all the time. We think we are speaking the same language – and maybe we even are, technically – but we can’t understand each other. We assume a shared background, a common experience – that much of the time isn’t there.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about this in the context of race: but I think we do it all along our path with those we see as other. People of different race, class, educational level. People who are gay, or straight, or support gun laws or prayer in schools. Or don’t.

Today, though, I’m thinking about race and how hard it is to keep this in mind.


The thing about a mission trip is (hopefully) – you know that you don’t know. You realize that you are walking into a completely different world, and you are coming ready to help. You have been told that what an American thinks helpful might not actually be helpful in a 3rd world country, so you come ready to learn how to help. You listen patiently, speak slowly, work for understanding. You are quicker to say you don’t know, you’re sorry – because it is overwhelmingly obvious how much you don’t know.


This morning I drove to the gym with the radio on the station that my husband had I yesterday. Sports talk by two local white guys. Only I didn’t realize that’s what it was at first because an extended audio clip from MLK’s final speech was playing. It was so good to hear. And then the hosts came back.

I wonder what MLK would think about the progress blacks have made in our country today, one said, I think he would be disappointed.

In that split second, I actually thought the host was going to offer some insight about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go – taking the “disappointed” in his sentence to mean that MLK would be frustrated with the roadblocks black people in America still face.

And then he said – Like the unwed pregnancies. There’s such a high percentage of that in the black population. I think he’d be disappointed.

I was outraged. In the car, in my head, I told him off. You have no right to speak on the radio about a culture you don’t know or understand and are not a part of. You have no right to put words in the mouth of an iconic black leader to say how he would be disappointed with his OWN RACE. WHICH YOU ARE NOT A PART OF.

I tweeted my outrage. I got replies that agreed with my way of thinking. I was pleased.

It wasn’t until an hour later when I was walking back out of the gym that I remembered that this very radio announcer – the one whom I had denounced in my head (and implied on twitter) as a redneck idiot – was the very same man who has personally been involved with an black family that I am close too. He has offered support, given gifts, been a meaningful part of their lives. They count him a friend.



What if if became obvious, even just a little bit, to the guy on the radio just how much he didn’t know?

What if I listened patiently, spoke slowly?

What if we worked for understanding, realizing we are walking into a world we don’t know?

What if we all came to help?


I am, personally and as a part of my church, dedicated to racial unity. I would love to point you in the direction of resources that help address this – if you are interested, please let me know in the comments, by email, twitter or FB. I’ve written about race before – you can find those posts here. Did you enjoy this post? Perhaps you’d like to subscribe.

One Comment

  1. When I worked at CJRW, I wrote for a client who had both American (English) customers as well as Hispanic customers. Often what I wrote would be translated into Spanish. I was surprised at how often the translator would come back to me and say, “This doesn’t translate.” Not just that there aren’t words for it, but the whole idea. Things that we do or don’t do. And these are people who live here, in our country.
    I can’t imagine trying to convey an idea to someone in another country with a completely different background and different experiences.

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