Interview of the Week: B.J. Epstein

What are your personal top three tricks and tips when learning languages?
There’s a saying about how the best way to learn a language is between the sheets and I have to agree with it. There is nothing like falling in love for learning a language: loving someone from a different culture and with a different native tongue makes you want to know her/ his language in order to fully understand her/him, since language is such an integral part of who we are (well, and you’ll probably be eager to learn the language to make sure you know what your partner’s friends and relatives might be saying about you!). Love provides a real motivation to study vocabulary and grammar. So my number one tip is to find a partner whose linguistic background is not the same as yours.

If that isn’t possible, the best bet is to go live in another country. You’re forced to use and think about the language in a completely different way than you do in the classroom. You are living the language, not simply learning it, and living a language is really the key to fluency.

And, of course, you should read, write, listen, and speak the language every day. Even when you’re fairly fluent, there is always more you can learn. So try to read a newspaper or two online each day, and a novel every week or so, and corral anyone who knows that language so you can practice having discussions. It might be a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.

What was the funniest situation with a linguistic misunderstanding you ever encountered?
I won’t mention the times when I was learning a language and people purposely set me up to make a fool of myself by telling me that a word or phrase meant something completely different from what it actually did! Instead, the situation I’ll describe is based on an idiom, which is always a difficult thing to learn. In Swedish, to say that someone is nosy or putting her or his nose where it doesn’t belong you use the idiom att lägga näsan i blöt, which means to put your nose in to soak (or to put your nose in the wetness). I learned that idiom and then forgot its exact phrasing so when I wanted to use it with someone who was asking me nosy questions, I ended up telling him that he had a wet nose. Naturally, you could argue that if you put your nose in to soak, as though it were a piece of dirty laundry, it would get wet, but idioms aren’t transferable like that. When I told the poor guy that his nose was wet, he touched it, thinking that it was running, and it took awhile before we sorted out exactly what I meant. We had a good laugh, and it least it distracted him from all his nosy questions!

What is the worst translation error you have ever made?
My worst translation mistakes occur when I am hungry or tired, because besides making other careless mistakes, I occasionally find myself typing in words related to food or sleep. For example, I might write “bed” instead of “bad” or I might just add in words that aren’t anything like the words I should be typing. Upon editing my translations (before sending them to the client, I edit them a couple of times, always when wide-awake and well-fed), I’ve found words such as “bagel,” “coffee,” and “sleepy” where they don’t belong. So over my years as a translator, I’ve learned at what times of the day I do my best work.

Which word is missing in your language and how would you spell it?
I don’t believe any word is missing. If we need to say something, we find a way of saying it, even if we have to use a phrase or a sentence rather than a single word. That being said, however, I do like the Swedish words sambo and särbo and I wish we had words like them in English. They both refer to romantic partners: in the first case, the word is used for a partner you live with (literally, together-live), and the second word is for a partner you don’t live with (literally, separate-live). Having a partner you aren’t married to is much more accepted in Scandinavia than in English-speaking countries, which explains our difference in terminology. It would be nice to have a common term for these kinds of relationships in English, but maybe as they get more common, our vocabulary will develop. That is usually what happens.

In your opinion, what is the sexiest accent and what is the reason for it?
Sexiness, like so many things in life, is relative. For me, the sexiest accent is the one my partner speaks in, and that depends not on the language itself (Italian in this case) but on my partner and her use of language. It’s amazing to be able to listen to someone you care about (and find sexy) express her or his opinions and to use words to share personal thoughts and feelings and experiences with you. Language is a fantastic thing that we humans have, and it brings us together in a very intimate way.

About the author
B.J. Epstein is a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in England. She is also a writer, editor, and translator from Swedish to English. Dr. Epstein wrote a book for use in English as a foreign language classes and she edited and contributed to a book on Nordic translation entitled Northern Lights: Translation in the Nordic Countries (Peter Lang, 2009). She blogs about translation, literature, and language at and can be reached through her website

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