LOST IN TRANSLATION: Traveling to a Country Without Knowing the Language

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After the hurdles my friend and I overcame, I don’t think I was really able to enjoy Paris. I couldn’t properly communicate with the people or understand many of the words around me.
I ’ve realized that although traveling to a country without knowing the
language may seem exciting, it can be extremely frustrating.

 

By Sierra Jackson

I cannot speak Catalan. I am unable to read Gallego. I do not understand Euskera. And I’m not even sure what Occitan (Aranese) sounds like, never mind the other less spoken Romance languages and dialects spoken throughout Spain.

Seville: in Andalusia, distinct southern variants of peninsular Spanish is widely spoken

Yet I have traveled to Bilbao, Barcelona, Laguardia, and Sevilla — in all of which town and cities Castellano is either not the only predominant language or the native inhabitants speak a special dialect.

When I traveled to Bilbao in the Basque Country and Barcelona in Catalonia, I was really concerned that I’d struggle to read signs throughout each city. I even had friends who had visited Barcelona and told me some people might react negatively when I spoke Spanish or English because of strong nationalistic, pro-Catalonia sentiments.

But, as it turned out, my experiences in both cities were anything but negative. During both trips, people would respond to me in the language they first heard me speak.

For example, as my friends and I walked through one of Bilbao’s many plazas speaking in English, a woman asked us in English where we were from. We replied in Spanish that we were from the United States. And again the woman replied in English. Before the woman could continue to walk too far from us in the opposite direction, I asked her how to say thank you in Euskera and she shouted back “Eskerrik asko.”

This pintxo was entered in the pintxo lehiaketa (that’s pintxo contest, in case you didn’t know!) in Ordizia, Basque Country

Often, when entering restaurants, I would start speaking in Castilian Spanish because I thought it was the best language to rely on. In the Basque Country, for instance, most vizcaínos (the Spanish word for the Basques) are bilingual. They would then continue the conversation in Castellano. And my initial fear of not being able to read signs, street names or menus was unfounded as most of these included Castilian translations.

Only in Laguardia, a town in the northern part of the autonomous community of La Rioja, did I encounter less signs in Castellano and more people who spoke Euskera. Laguardia borders the Basque province of Alava.

As soon as my group of friends entered a restaurant for a quick taste of the Basque Country’s famous pintxos bite-sized appetizers similar to Madrid’s tapas but with more eccentric flavor combinations), the waiter began speaking in Basque. Although I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, I assumed he was asking me for my order.

I had a similar experience in Barcelona. I found that although I couldn’t understand spoken Catalan, written Catalan was very similar to Castellano. And because Barcelona is a linguistically diverse city, most of the museums I visited offered translations in Castellano, Catalan and English.

The only time I struggled in Barcelona was when my friend and I went to a restaurant and we couldn’t understand the menu because it was all in Catalan. But as most Catalans are also bilingual, the waitress easily described each dish in Spanish.

When I left Spain to visit other European countries, linguistic troubles followed me.

I relied more on Google Translate than I do when writing in Spanish. To my surprise, street and Metro signs were easy enough to understand. For example, sortie is close enough to the spelling of the Catalan word sortida and the Spanish word salida, which all mean exit. And the French word for street, rue, looks the same as the Portuguese word for street, rua.

But restaurants were a whole new ballgame and I was completely lost. My friend and I used Google Translate’s camera feature to translate the photos we took of the menu. When this failed, we were lucky enough to have found a restaurant where the waiter spoke a little English and Spanish. With a combination of three languages and a lot of pointing and hand gestures, we were finally able to order our food.

Louvre-Rivoli, the nearest Metro station to the Louvre: travelling to a country without knowing the language may seem exciting but it can actually be extremely frustrating

After my friend was robbed in a subway train as we traveled to the Louvre, my definition of language barrier changed drastically. Because the Metro station’s police officers spoke very little English, we had to painstakingly rely on our English and words we found through Google Translate to explain what happened. We finally got through to them them, but the process took much longer and was more stressful than it would have been if we spoke French.

After the hurdles my friend and I overcame, I don’t think I was really able to enjoy Paris; I couldn’t properly communicate with the people or understand many of the words around me. I’ve realized that although traveling to a country without knowing the language may seem exciting, it can be extremely frustrating. And when you find yourself in a dangerous situation, not knowing how to speak the language makes adverse circumstances that much harder to overcome. Despite knowing many who couldn’t speak Spanish very well if at all, but have enjoyed their time here in Spain, I don’t think I would love Spain the way I do now if I didn’t speak Spanish

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Images
Featured image/Jon Russell, CC BY2.0
Seville/xiquinhosilva, CC BY2.0
Pintxo/Ordiziako Jakintza Ikastola, CC BY-SA2.0Louvre-Rivoli/Andrew Bowden, CC BY-SA2.0, cropped
Louvre-Rivoli Metro station/Andrew Bowden, CC BY-SA2.0