Relationship Success Through the Art of Translation

What Linguists Understand About Translation Could Take Your Relationship To The Next Level.

You’ve taken the quiz and learned your main love language. You’ve made a real effort not to throw personal insults when you’re angry. So why is there still so much tension in your relationship? The field of linguistics and translation may have the key.

At the base of almost every conflict in a healthy relationship (one that is based on kindness, respect and is devoid of abuse), is the desire to be seen, understood and accepted. Whether a conflict is about distribution of labour, jealousy, time management… it’s the upset that keeps an argument going. Feeling unseen or misunderstood is incredibly difficult to stomach and chances are you’re both stuck in those feelings if an argument is taking place.

In the study of translation, linguists are taught to consider the different facets of how we make meaning of the things we read or hear, and to determine the objective of the translation.

For example, with an instruction manual literal translation is the best technique to use. In other instances such as translating poetry, taking emotional or cultural translation into account is crucial. We need to consider the fact that language and emotional experience are interconnected, and the meaning can be completely different depending on someone’s cultural background. We see this in other areas as well, such as the different emotional reaction a person may experience to someone being barefoot depending on whether they had a Western or Arab cultural upbringing. So if I were translating a piece of written work from English to Arabic that at some point depicted a person showing the soles of their feet to another person, I would need to consider the negative emotional reaction I could elicit from my Arab readers and possibly adjust the text accordingly if the goal was for the reader to feel the same as the English readers did. That there are very different ways of understanding something that to one person feels straightforward and obvious, is a crucial concept to consider if your goal is to have less conflict and better understanding in your relationships.

While this applies to all interpersonal relationships, from work colleagues to friends, the focus here is on romantic partnerships. We’re all familiar with the terminology of baggage — the burdens we bring with us into our relationships from the past, dating back to childhood. These challenging experiences teach us what to expect of people and they create a sort of personal cultural dictionary which we reference without realizing it. No two are the same and this takes us down to the nuts and bolts of many of our relationship conflicts.

Imagine a former partner was visiting from out of town and wanted to get together with you and catch up. The relationship was years ago, you ended things knowing you had no interest in dating each other but things were on pretty good terms. Imagine you tell your current partner about your plans to visit and they get defensive, asking ‘Why do you need to go see them anyway?’ You feel defensive and frustrated and respond ‘It’s not a big deal! We’re just friends. Stop being so possessive.’

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It may sound like this conversation is happening in the same language but it’s not. The two of you don’t have the same dictionary. This imaginary partner of yours has baggage — a trigger that has been activated by the news that you’re getting together with an ex to catch up. You have a trigger around their response that feels like possessiveness. You both got defensive because you were afraid. Their fear is saying ‘The fact that you want to see this person makes me feel insecure, does that matter to you?’ and when you tell them it’s not a big deal, they hear that their insecurity isn’t a big deal. You didn’t realize this of course, and you felt defensive too. Your fear is saying ‘I used to be controlled by someone who didn’t trust me, and now I also feel like you don’t trust me.’

Fear is a compelling motivator because it’s an instinct that keeps us safe. Our challenging experiences reinforce our fear-based responses. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our sense of safety is considered a basic need and is second only to the factors which physically keep our bodies alive such as food and water. In relationships, unexpected things can trigger feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and anxiety, and these are all feelings that can compromise our foundational sense of safety. Threats to our sense of safety tend to result in outward feelings of defensiveness and inner feelings of fear or anger. In order to improve communication we need to start paying close attention to fear and defensiveness so that we can unlock our own dictionaries and read them aloud.

Let’s take as a base assumption that the person who is in a relationship with you is kind and generous, respectful, and cares about your well-being. We will assume that you feel the same way about them and that you each believe that the other feels this way. As longitudinal research out of The Gottman Institute indicates, these qualities are the critical building blocks of a healthy relationship. With those qualities as your baseline, you’ll be able to transform your communication.

Remind yourself of your baseline feeling about your partner.

This is an indispensable tool in opening up communication in your relationship. When you start to feel annoyed, hurt, defensive or angry, allow this to remind you to do a quick check-in with your baseline: The other person you’re talking to is someone whose well-being you care about, and who cares about yours. Kindness is everything.

Defensiveness is usually one of your own fears waving a giant flag in your face.

Before you react, remember that most of the time your defensive reactions are a protective mechanism alerting you to something deeper. Try to look in before you lash out. It’s fair to say to your partner that you’re suddenly feeling really defensive and want to take a few minutes to figure out what’s going on. The job of the person who hears this is to work on not taking it personally, and to give space to make that discovery possible.

Our feelings don’t have to make our decisions for us, but they do want to be seen.

When you’ve taken a moment to understand your defensive reaction, ask yourself what you wish the other person could know. In the case of our imaginary scenario, your partner would have wanted you to know that they felt insecure at the idea of you visiting with your ex. You would have wanted them to know that it’s really painful for you not to feel trusted. Those are both perfectly reasonable and legitimate feelings to have, and those are the things you need to tell your partner.

The next thing you need to ask yourself is what your needs are based on the answer to the first question. Perhaps your partner would ask you for reassurance that there is no threat to your relationship, or perhaps that you send some kind of loving text after your visit to help them feel secure. You may ask your partner to tell you the reasons that they trust you and validate that they count you as someone who will be good to them.

Assume you and your partner are on the same team.

Once you are communicating about what’s actually happening for you, try to keep that first point in mind: what’s your baseline feeling about your partner? You’re in this together, trying to take care of both your needs.

Use the translation model to understand each other better.

Over time, when you practice communicating openly, you start to understand each other’s translation dictionary. Every time you go through this process together you learn more about each other and your personalized empathy expands. If you move to a new country whose culture is different from your own, over time you pick up on the cultural nuances and deeper meanings and you learn to navigate within it. This is what will happen within your relationship once you begin sharing this unique inner emotional culture with each other.

When we take on this understanding of a translation-based communication model, we learn to say things such as “When you say ‘I’m tired’ I hear ‘I don’t feel like spending time with you’. Is that what you mean?” Within that we create an opportunity for our partner to take care of our feelings and to understand us better. Next time rather than just stating ‘I’m tired’ maybe they’ll choose to say ‘I’d love to spend time with you but I’m exhausted right now. Let’s plan to do something fun soon.’

We gain the ability to recognize misunderstandings or defensiveness as a sign that something may have been lost in translation rather than assuming a personal affront. We learn how to differentiate the stories our fears start to tell us from the actual thoughts and feelings our partner has (and we learn to ask for more information before we react to a story made up by our fears). This practice also helps us humanize ourselves and each other. We talk about baggage as if it’s a character flaw yet we all have it.

When we can use this model of translation to understand each other better, to bring more kindness into our relationships, we will see that our challenging experiences can actually help us travel the road of true intimacy. It is there that we will find the next level of relationship satisfaction and it is so worth the ride.

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