Lost in Translation

As a nearly trilingual Psychologist (Vietnamese was my first language, but I have not received formal clinical training in Vietnamese), my brain is often engaged in code-switching.

Most of the time, it happens so quickly that I don’t even realize it. However, the other day, I noticed that I switched personas when working with a Spanish speaking family and became gregarious and made jokes to build “confianza” or trust. In contrast to working with some of my English speaking patients, I tend to be reserved and aim to be “professional”). And I know my personality and tone switches when I speak Vietnamese to my family (a much-deserved post for another time). Sometimes I wonder if that’s why I’m sometimes so tired at the end of the day after navigating the many different worlds.

Anyhow, lately, I have been thinking a lot about themes of intergenerational conflict, language, and the impact of code-switching on youth. For example, during a recent family therapy session, a semi bilingual (English/Spanish) adolescent patient was upset because her Spanish speaking father used the word “debil” (which translates to weak in English) to describe her. Upon further inquiry, the father explained that his definition of debil was not weakness, but instead to be “too sensitive.” It was an exciting conversation for me (as a non-native Spanish speaker) to explain to the father how the actual dictionary Spanish word for “sensitive” is “sensible.” He was receptive to the idea of using sensible instead of debil. Still, it became confusing for the patient because she mistook “sensible en espanol” for the word sensible in English, which is defined as being wise or prudent! And let’s not forget the subtle interactions and body language expressed during that session that can’t ever be genuinely translated.

I believe in the power of language, its ability to create empathy and shared experiences, but also its ability to isolate a population. For example, in the Vietnamese language, there did not exist an equivalent word for gay except for the term bê đê (which is a slang term that is oftentimes used in a derogatory way). I do not believe there existed a word for transgender as reflected in Lotus Dao’s experience of coming out to his family.  Finally, in 2015, the Asian Health Services (AHS) in Oakland and developed the LGBTQ Glossary and included the term for transgender: chuyển  đổi  giới  tính. Finally.

Can you even imagine the additional struggle of literally not having the vocabulary to explain to your loved ones about your lived experience?

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