This week I was reminded again how often native English speakers use the word ‘sorry.’ And most times when I try to say a phrase in another language, where ‘sorry’ is used in English, I simply have to find a new way to say things in the other language. This is what linguists call pragmatics, when we look at how phrases are actually used in everyday exchanges. You will also hear linguists use the word ‘calque’ which refers to loan words, which sometimes make no sense when we translate things literally word by word. We have to be careful about which phrases can be translated literally and which ones cannot.
For example, in English, when we find out that someone has died, we may say something like, “I’m sorry that your mother has passed away.” or “I’m sorry to hear that you mother passed away.” Similarly, when we find out sad news about another person who is sick, we may say, “I’m sorry to hear that your mother is sick.”
However, in Chinese there is a phrase, 节哀顺变 (jie2ai1shun4bian4) which as near as I can tell, means something like, “restrain grief, accept fate.” Of course, as with most Chinese phrases, I rarely understand how the parts add up to the whole, but in this case, in talking with friends and in consulting with dictionaries, they all confirm the idea of “restrain grief, accept fate.”
Somehow the Chinese and English comparisons tell me a lot about cultural norms. In English, “sorry” is not an apology, it is more of an expression of sorrow. It is as if we are saying, “It also makes me sad to know that you feel sad.” The problem is that non-native speakers of English will understand are bizarre translation of “sorry” as an apology, and they will be left wondering why we are apologizing for something that we did not do. The Chinese version comes across, to me anyway, with more of a sense of “buck up and don’t let it get you down because everyone dies eventually and you can’t change fate anyway.” Not very sympathetic, is it? So, even though I know what the Chinese version is, it is difficult to image that my proficiency in the language will ever get to the point where it wouldn’t be weird to say to someone,节哀顺变.
In Portuguese, probably my strongest foreign language, when someone dies, a Brazilian will say “meus pêsames.” This is roughly equivalent to “my condolences.” However, Brazilians also say, “sinto muito…” which for me closely resembles the English sense of saying that I feel sad too. “Sinto muito…” means “I feel a lot…” The Brazilian “sinto muito” captures all of the sense of empathy for another’s feelings without using a phrase that can misinterpreted as an apology. Way to go Brazilians, you captured the sentiment perfectly.
So, sorry if this blog posted was boring for you. And sorry if you didn’t understand. But, I’m not sorry that I wrote it. Just be careful when you translate it into another language!