A few days ago a post by The Translation Guy got me thinking about how switching languages changes one’s personality. I have always said that a multilingual mind has the advantage of knowing several systems for organising reality, and is therefore able to integrate different world views and go beyond the limitations of each one. Yes, learning languages makes you smarter.
But in practical terms even a Hans Landa will switch between several languages and use them one at a time. What happens then? Have you ever observed a dramatic switch in personality as people switch languages? Don’t worry, it’s not that you are prejudiced or anything. Everyone does, it really happens, and it’s not at all surprising. This article reveals that
Researchers find that Spanish-English bilinguals are more assertive and achievement-oriented when using English, which seems in line with American culture.
And TranslationGuy articulates this by reporting that
A few years back, researchers at the University of Texas asked bilingual Mexican-Americans “a set of questions designed to assess personality, such as ‘Are you talkative?’ and ‘Do you tend to be disorganized?’ Many participants changed their answers when questioners switched from Spanish to English or vice versa.”
“When participants spoke in English, their responses emphasized assertiveness and achievement. These traits fit with the individualist ideals of the United States, as opposed to the group-oriented culture of Mexico, explained lead researcher Nairan Ramirez-Esparza.”
I have seen this at work in my daily life. I tend to be more assertive and dramatic while speaking Italian or French than I will ever be speaking English. On the other hand, I seem to be more dynamic and diplomatic when speaking English. Also, I remember feeling unusually sensible and decisive when speaking German – which says a lot, when one considers that I mastered it during a wild Erasmus semester. Quite predictably, even my sense of humour changes, I’ll make different jokes, laugh at different things.
I have noticed similar changes in my partner’s personality. Her native tongue is English, but she speaks Italian and French fluently. She sounds more assertive, independent and mature in French and Italian than she does in English. Again, this is probably due partly to how the language works, partly to the Australian culture in which she grew up, but I can’t help but think that this might also be related to the context in which a language was learned. She learned Italian and French away from home and from her family, and the independent lifestyle she was leading at the time probably affected her way of speaking those two languages, too. After all, we’ll all be whinier in the language we used to be whiny as kids.
As for how this affects translation proper, just think about how the voice of a narrator or a character in a book will change when switching languages. We’ll need to compensate because, if we were to translate literally, a moderately polite Italian will sound rude in English, for example, or an assertive Englishman will still sound too modest in Italian.
Also, thinking about this idea of translating oneself – not one’s words, but actually one’s self – is a very good opportunity to see how translation has to consider so much more than language itself in order to reproduce an experience rather than a sequence of alien thoughts.
I’m looking forward to read more about multiple-language-personalities in the comments!