lost in translation

A character for every language: anatomy of an expat’s (non) psychological syndrome


When I started this blog, one of my main concerns was that I perpetually felt lost in translation. Or maybe not even in translation. Just lost. Sometimes misunderstood, some others not listened to and most of the times confused. 

There’re days I can’t speak French but only English. Or there was that day I had this very important job interview in Spanish and I kept hearing myself saying words in French instead. The most humiliating is when I am supposed to talk Italian with a fellow national and I can’t but finish my sentences in another language. I look then something between a poser and a plain illiterate and that’s certainly one of the reasons I have stopped being invited to the fancy fêtes where mozzarella and ricotta are flown in by plane and everybody complains about the Belgian weather and the lack of a decent espresso. 

According to this article I can stop googling “multiple personality disorder” and looking up specialists in my region. It might be all the fault of the language(s). 

Several bi- or multi-linguals have indicated a change in the way they feel according to the language they’re speaking. Personally, I tend to talk more and to form longer sentences when I am surrounded by Italians while when I write in French my sentences result short and (too) concise, lacking all that flowery stuff French-speaking people are used to. (That was one of the first remarks my past editors made. I told them I still think in English rather than in French when I have to articulate a complex thought. They didn’t like it). What stays the same across languages is my tendence to be blunt and to avoid any possible sugarcoating of unpleasant realities.

If a good night’s sleep, followed by a strong coffee, can solve some of the above issues, there’s one that can’t be solved. No matter how strong you focus and how much caffeine you use. As you can read on the Economist’s blog, “many bilinguals are not biculturals”. 

It took me a while to realize this. For a very long time (and it still happens sometimes), every dinner party with Belgians would end in the same way: I would say something in my usual blunt way and my husband would interrupt, extremely embarrassed, to warn the other guests that I didn’t “really” think what I said. Every single time we would drive home without talking. Me, hugely offended. Him, unable to understand why I had to be so opinionated (something inappropriate for Belgian society). 

I am bilingual in French but far from being bicultural. I’m partially responsible for that: despite my decade spent in Belgium I never willfully took the time to immerse myself into French literature, films, newspapers and TV. I did it a bit at the beginning to learn the language but after a while I felt too distant from the French-speaking world to develop a passion about it. So I missed my train and if I now know how to talk to Belgians in formal occasions, I certainly have troubles in measuring my words in an informal context. 

The passive exposure since early childhood to British and American culture (cartoons, films, tv, books, stories) plus the fact that I simply like it more, makes me more sensitive and less prone to being equivocated when I speak English. 

What’s your own experience regarding multilingualism and multiple personalities? What about multiculturalism? Do you feel you are as many persons as the languages you master?

Guess who’s coming to dinner or the national themed invitation


From time to time a generous and well meaning friend will text to invite me to an “Italian dinner”, an “Italian drink” or  – even worse – an Italian blind (play)date. It’s happened dozens of time and the subtitle always is “I met an/some Italians at the gym/work/ salon/playground/school/hospital/cooking class/ and I thought you really ought to know each other”.

Sharing one’s mother tongue and having watched the same TV during the formative years produces good material for conversation but I have seen too many times embarrassed same-nationality guests asking each other with their expat metallic accent where city they come from, half bored, half stressed out.

The smiling host(ess) tiptoes around, careful not to interrupt the pleasant melody coming from his/her new friends and proud to assist to a home replica of the sex scenes in A Fish Called Wanda. (for those who’ve watched the film, it’s good to know that the Italian dubbing replaced the Italian words with Russian ones. Kevin Kline basically shouts “Vodka, Matrioska” and the likes while in bed with Jamie Lee Curtis).

I have met some nice people through these set-ups but the longer I live as an expat, the less excited I become at the prospect of spending yet another evening in an arranged ghetto.

Before cutting the cord it was comforting. The first people I met as a young expat went great lengths to make me feel at home, introducing me to the local Italian community where I could always turn to if I was feeling lonely, sick or depressed. Time has passed, though and I don’t associate anymore comfort with talking to strangers in my mother tongue.

And there’s something else. Long time expats become a little territorial regarding their status. Deep down, they like to think they are the sole representatives of their home country abroad, the unique product of an exotic culture. Once they are forced together in the same room with another dozen of fellow nationals, they (think they) lose all their charms.

A romantic poet wrote once that he loved foreign women because the language filter added an invaluable veil of mystery to the conversation and one could never completely understand all the nuances of the other’s personality.

Listening to someone who speaks your mother tongue means that there are no more filters. A few phrases, the intonation of some words, the pronunciation of vowels and you have an x-Ray scan: you can tell with a certain accuracy where that person grew up, what kind of school he/she went to and whether you share cultural references. In a few words, you can put someone in a box. The advantage is that you can understand fairly quickly if you like him/her or not.

Have you ever been invited to a national themed dinner? Have you ever organized something to introduce same nationality friends? Do you have a group of fellow nationals you meet on a regular basis just because you come from the same place?