Language difficulties when travelling: Embrace 'lost in translation' moments

The guy selling dates speaks Arabic, plus some French he says, and maybe even a little English. Or at least I think that's what he says. I speak English, plus a little Spanish. And that's it.

I'm pointing at the dates, laid out with such care in the shopfront before me, attempting to make myself understood. I'd like to sample a couple before I commit. There are so many dates here, big ones, small ones, dark ones, caramel-coloured ones, cheap ones, expensive ones. I'm going to buy some, I just don't know which.

Losing the power of language is intimidating.

I point at a few and motion to my mouth. The crowd in the Tangier souk bustles around me. The guy selling the dates pulls out a bag and begins filling it with my chosen item. No, I say, I just want to try. The guy smiles, looks confused. I look confused. The crowd bustles and the noise rises and we both look at each other helplessly and try to muddle our way through.

Travellers are supposed to fear situations like this. You try to avoid these "lost in translation" moments, these problems with the language barrier, these interactions where no one properly understands what the other person is trying to say.

Losing the power of language is intimidating. Suddenly you don't have your most obvious skill. The tool of communication that you once took for granted no longer exists. You have to try to make yourself understood with hand gestures, with facial expressions, with a highly complex game of cross-cultural charades.

And even if you manage to deliver your message in the way you're intending, will the other person understand it?

It's intimidating, but it's also brilliant. When you first begin travelling you might try to avoid lost-in-translation moments, but the more you see of the world the more you realise that these adventures in misunderstanding are the real thrills. This is the marker that things are going well.

OK, you don't understand what the other person is saying. That person doesn't get you, either. But that just means you've arrived somewhere interesting, somewhere off the beaten tourist trail, somewhere that people like you don't always go. It might not be an exotic country or city either – maybe you're only a block or two away from a major attraction in tourist-heavy Western Europe – but the fact no one knows what you're saying means you're treading a new path. And that can only be good.

These failures of communication will also show you the general kindness of humans. You'll find that in the middle of nowhere Japan, locals will take you aside and attempt to guide you even though you don't share a word of a common tongue. You will discover in a Mexican market that people who have nothing to gain by giving you a hand will smile and play along with the game, will attempt to understand you as you try to understand them.


Yes, things will go wrong when no one really knows what's happening. You will be taken to the wrong place. You will be sold the wrong thing. You will get on the wrong bus or train.

But that's good, that's fun. It's an adventure and a story. Travel should be full of mishaps if you're doing it properly, if you're taking chances and following your own path.

The key to enjoying these moments of cross-cultural confusion is just to treat them as part of the thrill of travel. Approach them with the assumption that you will do or say the wrong thing. Approach them with a smile.

Approach them, too, with the knowledge that local people, mostly, will give you points for trying, will appreciate even a few words of their own language being spoken and in return will try to communicate in a few words of yours.

You'll be amazed what you can achieve with hand gestures and mime. You'll be overjoyed when people recognise the chance you're taking and join with you to make it work.

I eventually got my dates in Tangier. There were some hand gestures, some smiling, a few words in Spanish and a little English and some niceties in Arabic as well. I got to taste a few – some big, beautiful Medjools, and some smaller, caramel-sweet local dates – before settling on a large purchase and paying my dirhams and retreating back into the crowded souk.

It was just a small interaction, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing unique. But still, you get a buzz from things like this, from putting yourself out there and making it work. This is what travel is all about: mixing with people who are different to you, taking chances and seeing what happens.

There's really nothing to fear.

Have you had any memorable "lost in translation" moments? How do you approach situations like this? How you found local people generally willing to help?



LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the podcast

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.