by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on July 6, 2012

I am interested in language in every possible sense of the word: the language we speak, as well as implicit communication-the language of emotions, the language of the body, the language of movement, the language of art. We communicate in many different ways, and as a psychoanalyst I try to pay attention to as many of those communications as possible. Then recently something happened that alerted me once again to the importance of the language we speak and the many meanings embedded in it. It reminded me of my belief that our mother tongue holds many experiences that somehow lose their intensity and feel different when they are translated into another language. Here is what happened:

An Italian friend wrote me of a dream she had the night before. She recounted the dream in English. In the dream her house was being robbed, and the thieves were breaking into some boxes that belonged to her deceased mother in law. She arrived on the scene, along with two of her friends and saw two shady men leaving the premises. She yelled at the men and her friends helped to scare them away.

As I thought about the possible meaning(s) of her dream, I remembered a colloquialism often used in Italian (rompendomi le scatole) which when translated to English literally means “breaking my boxes”. It is used when someone is annoying you or taking you to task on something, or just plain haranguing you- a somewhat vulgar way of saying to someone that they are being a pain and/or testing your patience. When I remembered this and mentioned to my friend  that “someone was breaking her boxes” we had a good laugh. It literally changed the meaning of the dream for her and led her to some discoveries about her feelings regarding her mother in law and what she had left behind in those boxes. Lucky for both of us that we spoke Italian! Without knowing this phrase and its usage I would not have been able to consider an alternate meaning to her dream and invite her to play with those possibilities.

It got me thinking about how language can be used to communicate, shut down and /or change the meaning and texture of what we actually feel, say, and how we say it. While many memories and feelings, as well as dreams are represented in symbols that are often tied to a particular language, the language we actually choose to speak about those alters our experience of them. In particular, translating something that we first experience (and symbolize) in our mother tongue to another language provides some (emotional) distance from it so as to actually influence our experience of it and the thoughts we have about it. Translation provides different symbols to lived experience. Research on this topic has found that when polyglots translate from their first language to another they make decisions that are less influenced by emotions. So there it is. Emotions are first encoded in our mother tongue. Translation provides some degree of separation between emotions and thoughts by assigning different symbols to experience. True, my Italian friend may have been able to access that phrase on her own, since she is Italian and it is her mother tongue, but she was removed from it because she was reporting the dream in English. While I read it in English, I was thinking of her at home in Italy, and my experience of her was very much grounded in her ‘Italianness’ which alerted me to what breaking boxes felt like in Italian. We were connected through our ‘Italianness’ and that triggered my associations and moved us into a mutual understanding from which to begin to consider alternate possibilities.

What are the implications for therapy? Based on my own experience with an English speaking analyst, translating from the Italian into English when necessary never seemed to me to make that much difference. Not that much but some. My analyst and I worked it out so that if I could not think of the word or words for what I was feeling or wanted to say I said it in Italian and then struggled with her on the translation. Sometimes this worked fine, others it seemed to take me off course, to distance me just enough so that I lost the feeling of it. But we managed. It was good enough. Back then, I thought that perhaps some feelings needed another language, a translator to provide some degree of separation. I still think that. Another Italian expression comes to mind: Traduttore traditore- The translator betrays. Perhaps there is always a betrayal of the original sentiment in translation.

Sitting in my analytic chair I am aware of listening and speaking differently when I work with Italian or Spanish speaking patients. I use my hands much more. My voice sounds a full octave higher. The language I speak has an effect on how I present ideas, ask questions, relate to the other, understand the context of what is being said and perhaps even how I feel about what is happening. Yes I think that language can do all that and more. I think language reaches different self-states and communicates information in self- specific ways.

In a good (enough) treatment an interpersonal language develops and unfolds, where meaning is created through the relationship between doctor and patient. That language is constructed not only through the words that are being spoken, but also through what is implicitly communicated through gesture, tone of voice, and emotional resonance. In fact, while what is being spoken may change the direction, depth, and topic of the interaction, it is what is implicit and its textural fabric in communication that adds body to spoken language and goes beyond it to reach lived experience- regardless of the language it is spoken in. And therein lies the magic of the co-constructed  language within the psychotherapeutic relationship. But that is a subject for another post. Stay tuned.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Karen July 7, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Although my mother tongue is English, I grew up hearing my father speaking Italian with his mother, sisters and Italian-speaking friends and my mother speaking Yiddish with her mother and sometimes with her sisters. Your observations about language made me think of all the Italian and Yiddish phrases and exclamations I grew up hearing and unconsciously learning. I didn’t just learn the words but I also learned their meaning “through what was implicitly communicated through gesture, tone of voice, and emotional resonance.” To this day, I still use those words or phrases I learned during my youth when I can’t find a word or phrase in English that would adequately describe or express my feelings. They most often are the words that just automatically fall out of my mouth or pop into my head when I am having a deeply emotional reaction to something. They alone are the most satisfying words for me to use because they encompass so much meaning.


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