Today learn, why it’s a bad idea to translate your scripts!
‘Learning to become fluent in a language depends on your willingness to make an effort.’
I typed this quote into Google translate, hoping I could simply copy and paste, but this is what happened: ‘Vloeiend leren worden in een taal hangt af van uw bereidheid om u in te spannen.’
This is in Dutch and for those who don’t speak it, Google translate ruined the word order, made the pronouns too formal and lost the meaning of the sentence.
When you translate it directly back to English, it says: ‘Fluent learning becoming in a language depends on your will to strain.’
The word order is wrong, the use of tenses is incorrect, and the final verb doesn’t actually make sense in this context because it has a different meaning.
I know this, because I speak both languages fluently, but imagine if I was less familiar with either language – the translation would seem fine to me. I’d post it on my social media feed and wonder why no one was engaging with it. So, if you’re trying to attract new students, it is a bad idea to translate your content directly.
Direct translation can mean translating something literally from one language to another, or translating each word individually. But think of all the expressions, idioms and synonyms that each language has, and how different their grammar can be. Unfortunately, language just is not that simple!
Sometimes when we translate words or phrases from one language directly into another, but it’s a bad idea to translate your ideas in such a robotic and literal way because the language often loses its meaning. That’s because different languages express ideas in different ways i.e. they have unique words, varying cultural associations, different structures and distinct ways of ordering information. They also come with their own sense of humour and ways of showing emotion. Each language, and even their dialects, has its own style of communication, and there is often no direct equivalent of the same expression in both languages.
When meaning, feelings and the effect of language are changed at the moment of translation, that’s when we use the phrase: ‘Lost in translation’.
Lost in translation
Lost in translation means that when something is translated, it loses effectiveness and meaning. Translation apps (even though many have improved a lot) aren’t always correct, are often too literal, and don’t consider wider contexts or alternatives.
This is problematic because it means there is no intention behind the words chosen – they’re selected by a robot who only had one option in the first place. Without the freedom to choose which word out of several, to choose your tone of voice, or whether to speak with humour or seriousness, you can no longer communicate the authentic message or your feelings that goes with it.
It’s not only a bad idea to translate this way because it isn’t accurate, but it can also really affect your students. It can result in confusing, offensive, non-inclusive language. And especially in the context of teaching yoga, this can be harmful to your students.
The language we use in our yoga classes is very specific: it’s descriptive, it can be instructional, metaphorical, and our students will be very sensitive to it. People come to your classes to connect mind, body and breath. They come to find a type of relief, become present, disconnect from the outside world and for other countless personal reasons. Your students want to be able to follow your guidance and words without having to think and, or look up to see what you’re doing. It’s also important that your language is considerate and appropriate for them. For those reasons, paying attention to the words you use is crucial.
Why translation can be problematic
As an English learner, you may have studied prepositions. Prepositions are an excellent example of types of words that get misinterpreted and cause confusion when you try to translate them directly. If you’re a Spanish speaker, think of ‘sobre’ which in English means ‘on’, but also ‘upon’, ‘over’, and ‘above’. Translate ‘sobre’ to German: ‘über’ and in English next to ‘over’ and ‘above’ it also means ‘about’ and ‘across’.
Any English teacher will tell you it’s a bad idea to translate prepositions into or out of your own language when learning English ones. But for yoga teachers it can be very tempting to do this. In yoga, we need prepositions a lot to describe where to move or position something, and how we should move there.
Now imagine you had to ask your students to ‘Lift your arm ____ your head’ or ‘Place your left foot ____ your knee’ – which preposition will you choose? I’m afraid that simply translating the word you’d use in your language doesn’t always communicate the same meaning.
Mistranslations of prepositions are easy to do but can be very confusing and can cause people to stumble and fall over. However, directly translating other types of language like phrases, expressions and vocabulary can also have a negative effect on your students’ emotions and your relationship with them.
Language is deeply linked to our cultures
There’s a book I love called ‘Lost in Translation’ by Ella Frances Sanders. It explains the meaning of words that only exist in one language. These types of words tell us a lot about a culture. About a local attitude to life, lifestyles and perspective of the (rest of the) world.
An example I learned from a Brazilian friend is the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ which I understand is a sad but loving feeling of really longing for something or someone. In English, a bad translation might be nostalgia, but that focuses on the past. Saudade can also be, for example, missing someone present, or a dreamy wishfulness that something will happen in the future and probably can’t/won’t. When a concept like this simply doesn’t exist linguistically in English as one word, it’s such a bad idea to translate directly – you will lose the essence and feeling of the idea.
The words and language we use have strong emotional associations and whenever we translate a single word, the translation doesn’t necessarily carry the same meaning. A good translation communicates the same messages and feelings that come with a word, not just a line of individual letters and words that aren’t connected to wider significance.
There are other things you need to take into account when you translate in a context where lots of different languages, cultures, opinions and lifestyles meet, like in an international yoga class. If you, as a teacher, want to communicate humour, what you find funny may not be funny at all for your students. For example, many people (and possibly you) sarcasm just seems like a lie! But in some countries, it’s a common sense of humour to have. Things like humour, irony, and the expression of emotion and tone through language choice change when they are received by a person who is used to the culture(s) of a different language.
Language is personal
The language you use as a yoga teacher is deeply personal. Not only are your words your own expression of your personal ideas, knowledge and feelings, but it can really affect your students, and in many different ways. We don’t always know about their background, culture, beliefs and perspectives and so it’s our responsibility to pay attention to the words we use in our classes and overall communication.
I have mentioned it’s a bad idea to involve direct translations in your content because it can result in confusing, offensive, non-inclusive language. I’ve also explained how translation apps are often incorrect, too literal and don’t consider context or alternatives.
So let’s take, for example, the word ‘thin’. Being thin/fat and big/small depend on your environment and personal experience. For a person who struggles to find food or has a health condition or lifestyle meaning they never gain weight, then being thin is a symbol of ill health and struggle. For others, whose environment has been influenced by media that promotes thinness as a beautiful thing, being thin might feel like a good thing. Depending on your personal situation, ‘thin’ can have both or either positive and/or negative associations.
Words have connotations, so choose them carefully
As a yoga teacher, to help you choose your language wisely, you need to consider what the connotations are of the words you use. Another reason why it’s a bad idea to translate your content directly is because it doesn’t take into account the strong associations, feelings, ideas and opinions that are suggested by individual words.
Think of the very similar words: ‘skinny’ and ‘slim’. One of these has more negative connotations and could activate negative emotions for your students. Which of these words is best to use for your classes? I’d personally say ‘slim’ is safer, to me based on my understanding and experience of its associations. ‘Slim’ is probably the most neutral way to explain that something isn’t ‘thick’, ‘fat’ or ‘big’, which also have their own problematic associations. The point is that direct translations can not only be incorrect, but also very activating for those suffering from any type of trauma. And that personal experience and cultural background influence those feelings.
So, how can you translate your scripts more accurately?
The students that are taking our English for Yoga Teachers Course, as well as those who are on our membership are immersed in their language learning for their job as a yoga teacher. Immersion isn’t only necessary to gain confidence and fluency, it’s also the only way to get used to hearing and seeing it regularly, making the language your own and learning to use the language as native speakers do.
Developing your English for yoga teaching in an immersive way will give you the skills you need to translate in a more accurate and knowledgeable way. But importantly. Immersion helps you not to depend on translation. Through immersion, you get a feeling for a language, and that’s what stops you needing to translate directly. It’s also what gives you a better understanding of the associations different words have. Why? Because you experience it for yourself. Through language exposure, you gain your own experience of the connotations and feelings a word brings up.
Working with other yoga teachers and students who are international helps you start considering how different our experiences can be and how you can accommodate them in your teaching. You start to develop your own experience of the connotations and associations that language can have, and how they differ between individuals, because you yourself see and hear it in usef.
Immerse yourself so that you understand the connotations of language
In order to start understanding the significance of words and their associations, you need to be exposed to the language as much as possible. While immersion is different for everyone, it involves regular practice of all the skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking, but also active practice and revision of vocabulary. I call this ‘independent learning’ and consider it a fifth skill.
It’s key to read about the topics that you teach in English. To sign up for classes and workshops with your English speaking teachers and practise your listening skills. Find opportunities to speak about these topics with other learners or someone who understands the struggle of learning a language, or can help and correct you. Meanwhile make sure you record whatever you’re learning and make an effort to practise all of your new learnings in context.
Continuing Education Membership
In the world of teaching yoga, I believe there’s too little attention paid to non-native English speaking yoga teachers. When I completed my first YTT, I felt misunderstood and undervalued for not knowing the right vocabulary for my yoga classes. I doubted my ability to teach yoga in English even though I was teaching English as my full time job. And that’s why I’m here – to help you learn to communicate what you truly want to say and offer effective, accessible and authentic classes your students will love. To no longer doubt your translations, but speak and teach with confidence and clarity.
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