The old adage about never really knowing a language until you’ve spent some time in the country itself is undeniably, irritatingly true. When I arrived in Spain for a year of study, I was immediately struck by the contrast between the Spanish I’d been learning from my grammar textbooks back in the UK, and the Spanish my taxi driver was shouting at everyone who got in his way as we careened through the streets of Madrid. I was lucky enough to find a flat with other Spanish speakers, including my formidable landlady who took it upon herself to educate me whenever possible (“Did you understand that word I just said? Go write it down and learn it.”)
I spent several months studying at language schools, including the excellent Don Quijote, which has schools all over Spain and Latin America, and the slightly cheaper AIL. Often I found that the best moments in class were when the teacher and the other students went off-topic and started just having a general conversation: it’s nice to feel free to make mistakes in your conversations knowing that the teacher is happy to correct you. Another fantastic opportunity I discovered was the Madrid institution of the intercambio, a real lifeline for a solo traveller where you get the chance to meet new people and practise Spanish with locals.
Of course, homesickness is inevitable, but what people don’t often mention is being homesick for your language. Even though my Spanish was improving faster than ever, I still had to think before I spoke. I especially missed certain phrases in English that proved untranslatable. When my roommate played me some rather cheesy Spanish rock I tried to come up with a word that encapsulated this very English concept. “Es un poco…quesoso,” I ventured, attempting to adapt the Spanish word for cheese only to be met with a blank look. Trying to explain the importance of cheesiness in English culture quickly proved futile, while my roommate’s suggestion of “cursi”, meaning twee or affected, just didn’t encapsulate it.
The other phrase which I found myself sincerely longing for was “looking forward to it.” As a set phrase in English, it has a very specific meaning, an accepted amount of desire and anticipation for something. But it has no direct equivalent in Spanish. There’s “tengo ganas de” for “I really want to”, “Estoy deseando” or “Espero”, verbs closer to waiting for or wanting something, but everything just seemed a little too enthusiastic. Was this my English reticence and stiff upper lip clashing against Mediterranean openness?
This idea of trying to translate the untranslatable fascinated me, so I signed up for a course in literary translation with Cálamo & Cran, a specialised editorial and translation school. As the only non-native speaker there, I found myself translating ‘backwards’ – working from my mother tongue into another language. Learning the tricks and techniques of translation was a great experience, and I found the basic approach to the task – careful analysis, comparison with similar styles and constant revision – universal in their appeal. Yet in spite of my improved Spanish, it quickly became apparent that I would never be able to work at the level of my classmates. I’d occasionally pick a word which, according to numerous dictionaries and thesauruses, should have been an ideal fit, only to be told, “It just doesn’t sound right.” Still, being the only native English speaker in class proved to have its advantages, as I was able to explain the intricacies of certain English words, particularly in terms of double meanings or cultural background. All our translations were ultimately imperfect ones, because none of us could quite capture the culture behind the language. However, the fun of playing with language, of trying to find Spanish equivalents to children’s books and nonsense words was something that could not be matched. Living in Madrid allowed me to get a truly rounded idea of the Spanish language, from my taxi driver’s colourful curses, to boozy conversations at intercambios, and to our literary experiments in class. It’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone, and one I’m longing to repeat.
About the author:
Lindsey Ford is a London-based writer and translator, currently blogging for SubwayHotels.com about Madrid hotels, attractions and other handy tips for first-time travellers.