|Zion Church in Berlin, the site of one|
of a handful of
underground print shops in
communist East Berlin.
While most people in Germany speak a fair bit of English, there were a number of times where our group leader had to translate signs or tours for us, especially if the subject was rather technical or if we were along on a German-only tour.
Whether it's just his personality or the fact that he's a physicist, our guide tended to shorten things quite a bit for us to understand. Occasionally, with my (very, very) limited amount of German, I could tell that he was omitting some parts of the narrative or making them more succinct for our understanding. (This was totally fine with me, because being in a country where pretty much everyone seems to be at least bi-lingual, it's embarrassing to admit that you only speak one language and I also felt like I was an inconvenience to native speakers by needing everything translated).
However, when translation got really interesting was when there was a flurry of back-and-forth rapid German between our group leader and the tour guide, followed by a quick consultation with another bi-lingual speaker in the group. The result of this conversation usually began with a statement in English something along the lines of, "I don't think you have a word for it, but it's a similar concept to..." followed by a few sentence description of what was probably one word in German. A couple of times, he also added, "It's pretty much untranslatable."
Even though I went into the trip realizing that different languages don't always have a word-for-word equivalence of concepts, it surprised me how frequently these exchanges occurred and how narrow one language can be for expressing ideas.
Fiction:While it's common to see multiple languages used in fantasy books, I don't think I've run across the idea of something being lost in translation. It would be a cool concept to utilize more frequently.
What factors influence what each language in your story has vocabulary for? For example, a sea-faring society likely has more words for nautical and marine terms than a desert society. How can this cause confusion in translation between characters?
Are certain languages considered valuable to learn for economic or social reasons? Are others looked down upon for being local dialects?
Is there a trade language or a language that most characters are expected to learn? Do certain professions require training in a certain language? (Church work in the Middle Ages and Latin). What factors influence what language(s) your characters know--schooling, social class, occupation, country of residence, language spoken at home, age, etc.?
Are certain languages considered more difficult to learn? How are languages in your storyworld related? What history--conquests, trade, etc.--affects shared vocabulary or similar syntax?
Have you traveled to a country that doesn't speak your native language? What was the experience like?