I didn’t have much of a cross-cultural upbringing. With the exception of a trip to Wales when I was 10 years old and a day trip to Amsterdam at 17 I didn’t leave England until I was 21. This is my excuse for going through school without any interest in learning another language. I dropped studying French at 14 and have never really gone back.
One of the assumptions I carried for years was that it was completely possible to substitute a word in one language for an equivalent in English. Of course, if I’d paid any attention in French class I would have quickly realised this wasn’t the case.
How do you say hello in English? = Hello
How do you way hello in French? = Bonjour (Though, it’s probably more polite to say, Bonjour madame or monsieur – depending on who you are speaking to. Or you could say ‘Salut’, but that’s more like saying ‘hi’).
Of course, bonjour isn’t hello, rather it’s (bon = good and jour = day) good day – which in English sounds ever so polite.
But things can get even more complicated. In some parts of the world, the same word can exist in two languages but have completely different meanings.
My friend Sue works as a Bible translation consultant. She is currently in Madagascar checking a translation of the gospel of Matthew, from where she writes,
When people read the Bible in Official Malagasy, what they understand may differ depending on which language group they are from. For example mino means ‘believe’ in Official Malagasy, but in the Bara language it is the normal word for ‘drink’.
Read Sue’s full blog post here
So, not only is it unreasonable to expect there to be a direct translation of one word from one language to another, it’s completely possible that a word that sounds the same in two languages can have two completely different meanings!