Words have a meaning greater than their translation


It is very human to associate objects with certain emotions, to give something that seems very common a sentimental value that makes it priceless to you. We all own things that can never be replaced by anything else, things that seem without value but are worth everything for you. Think about a wedding ring, your favorite childhood toy or teddy bear, the last sweater you got from your grandma before she died or even the seashell you took from a beach you truly enjoyed visiting. Objects become a symbol, they tell a story only you know, they help you remember, and make you intensely feel the emotions you have felt in the past.

We value objects by the sentimental importance we ascribe to them, by the meaning we give them. The same object can have different values and meanings, while the same meaning can be found in different objects with different values. Meaning seems to be something extremely vague, something really personal, a perception of reality almost.

Even in language the term meaning shows a kind of abstraction. I learned that mother means “moeder” and padre means “vader”. But if you’re from the US, you will probably say I am wrong, “mamá” and “moeder” mean mother, not the other way around. And a Spanish kid will probably not agree with the both of us, because for him, mamá and padre are the words that have meaning. Even in something as general as language, meaning seems something personal, or at least national. We pick the language that we are most familiar with as the one with meaning leaving other languages to be no more than a translation. Why? Because the words from our own language contain experiences other languages don’t have, growing up with a language creates a emotional connection with the words from this language.

I have not once in my life met a guy named Henry, so when I hear the word Henry, I will feel nothing, the word has no meaning to me. But imagine that I meet a Henry tomorrow. We fall in love, we get married and then he dies in a car accident the day we got back from our honeymoon. I am 100 percent sure that the next time I hear the word Henry, I will feel al kinds of emotions. My experiences with this guy that is accidentally called Henry created my meaning for this name. Falling in love and having my life abruptly destroyed has become my definition of this first so empty word. And this is how it works with everything in life.

Imagine calling your mother mom in a different language. Is the image that pops up similar to the one you see when you use your own words? Does saying “moeder” create a feeling similar to that of you saying the name you used for your mother when you were young? Is there even an image for a mother from a foreign country?

For me there is a big difference between my grandfather and my “opa”. Although these two words are about the same person, they have a completely different effect on me. My grandfather is no more than the father of my mother while opa makes me remember the great man that understood and protected me. I have always called this man in my life my opa, he became my definition of opa, and grandfather will just never truly mean him for me, because I have no memories of him and this word.

The sentimental value we give to objects seems to exist is words as well. Vader, father, and padre are not the same thing, unless you don’t speak English, Dutch or Spanish with your dad, because then all these words will just be a translation of the word that means something to you. Words seems to have a meaning greater than the definition we can find in a dictionary, they, like objects, are able to tell a story and bring up memories and memories, words can have a personal meaning as much as your teddy bear does.

Why does this matter you might wonder. Why am I talking about how our experiences are able to add meaning to words? I mean, I am supposed to write about my emotional deprivation and childhood trauma? What does language have to do with this?

Well, I believe that a change in language can help me to solve my mental problems, or at least help me to get to the memories that are needed to do so. I notice that when I write about my past in English, I am much more capable of describing a painful memory than I am when I try the same thing in my own language. I can write about the loneliness I felt as a kid without immediately getting overwhelmed, I can write about my father’s anger without feeling vulnerable or scared, I can write about how unfair my childhood was without feeling scared or weak… When I think or write about about the same things in Dutch, the emotions from then frighten me so much that I immediately go back to hiding.

As a child, I never felt sad, lonely, hurt or weak, I felt “verdietig”, “alleen”, “gekwetst” or “zwak”, four words that will probably don’t make you feel anything. I however, have felt these words so intensely that they became my pain. Today, the words scare me as much as the emotions themselves do and this makes me unable to relive my childhood and heal from what has happened to me.

My pain is written in Dutch words that are defined by the experiences that scared me the most. But my own story in English doesn’t have these words that are so painful to me, English protects me in a way. I can explore the dark hidden places inside my own mind without being immediately overwhelmed with feelings, I can grab a memory, hold on to it and look around, without feeling the immense pain that lays in the Dutch version. I can give all my English feelings a new meaning or slowly translate them into Dutch or I can rewrite my own story in a language that I can give meaning myself. I can heal.

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