I can tell you that the only way I learned English well enough to be able to think in the language was by living here. And for those who will ask: yes, I also dream in English these days, although I tend to sing in Italian. By being fully immersed in the way people not only think, but act in the every day language of life, I learned what it means to function in American English.
Lorelle Van Fossen over at ProBlogger has a terrific guest post on blog translations. It made me think that no matter how foreign the language, in Italy, we always found a way to take the frustrated tourist to where they needed to go. Italians do it, even without speaking your language. They will go out of their way to cheer you up and take care of you.
Once I crossed paths with a tourist who had rented a car and needed to hook up with a friend at the central train station in my home town. He was driving in the opposite direction and did not speak one word of any of the languages I spoke. So I used sign language -- the nice kind we are also famous for -- and told him to follow me. I literally drove him there.
That is probably one of the winning attitudes that will keep you going back to visit our lovely country for years. And the food, of course. But we do not live of food alone. Words can sustain us: ask the poets and literati, the philosophers will tell you. When you speak a language that is non native to you, your choice of words can surely make the difference between a healthy laugh and your meaning getting across. Yet it is not the grammar, which we fear most, that trips us.
Lorelle writes about those Babelfish and Altavista online translators that, while helpful in a pinch, may not convey the message quite in the ways you intended. It's how you put the words together in the context of the conversation that carries the meaning across. One of the most difficult interviews I ever did was a diplomatic letter about Somalia at the Italian Mission to the United Nations. Lives hang in the balance when you mix words and meaning in those situations.
To get along, all we need is a willingness to lean forward and join the conversation in real time, no matter the language. It's more heart than head. Let's take a look at a challenging translation I did for a verse of poetry, my mother's. For those of you who always wanted to learn Italian, here's a tasting.
S'affaccia questa parola
sul bordo del silenzio
s'affaccia per dire ancora
che la vita regna nel mondo
che la vita puo' essere
la gioia piu' grande.
It looks onto the edge of silence
it appears to say again
that life reigns in the world
that life can be
the greatest joy.
What matters is an understanding of where the heart is in the writer -- and the speaker -- and a deep appreciation of the context. After more than 1,200 hours of interpreting work into both Italian and English and countless hours of written translation, I can tell you that translations are never completed; only abandoned. My advice to you: own your words, no matter the language, so they may become a free expression of who you are -- your brand.