Language and Psychotherapy

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I am a originally from Peru and moved to the U.S. in my early 30s to attend graduate school. In this article I want to share about the role of language in my personal journey, and the challenge created by the words that lack a precise translation between English and Spanish. I believe there are important implications for psychotherapists, even if they are not bilingual.

My language journey

I grew up speaking exclusively in Spanish so, prior to moving to the U.S., I did not have to use English on a daily basis. This was part of a cultural adjustment that I anticipated. What I did not anticipate was a challenge I faced when I started working more seriously on myself, in therapy and other settings.

The emotional wounds experienced in my childhood and adolescence were created in Spanish, but the healing was going to take place in English. It is hard to say whether the gap between the two languages facilitated or undermined my personal process, but it definitely had an impact.

My bilingualism has provided different building blocks to my personal narrative, impacting my sense of identity and creating a paradoxical situation: I sometimes find it more difficult to talk about myself and my personal journey in Spanish, even though it is my mother tongue.

Untranslatable feelings

Early on I realized that some feeling words in Spanish do not have a simple or direct translation to English. These include:

  • Vergüenza ajena: which refers to feeling embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.
  • Te quiero: a widely used expression of affection sitting between “I like you” and “I love you.”
  • Encantar: a verb you can use when feeling charmed by someone else, liking that person very much.

In time I became aware of the opposite process: some words that are common currency in psychotherapy do not have a precise translation to Spanish. Below are a few examples.

Shame

The closest translation is “vergüenza,” which is a word that could also be used to describe embarrassment. However, "shame" carries a sense of worthlessness and of not feeling good enough. No word in Spanish conveys all that meaning, which is a shame (no pun intended).

The word “sinvergüenza” (literally without “vergüenza”) has a negative connotation, and is used in Spanish to describe someone behaving immorally or disrespectfully, similar to how the word “shameless” is used in English.

Accountability

This word has an interpersonal quality, since we are accountable to an other, not present in any Spanish word. We could use “responsabilidad” ("responsibility") as an alternative, but the interpersonal nature of the word is lost.

Another alternative is the verbal phrase “rendir cuentas,” which has a similar etymology as “accountability.” However, there is no (simple) way to turn it into a noun like “accountability” or an adjective as “accountable.”

Boundaries

This is an example of a word with close substitutes, but without a direct translation. The closest translation to Spanish is “límite,” which is the word for “limit.” The English dictionary suggests “limit” and “boundary” are intertwined and almost interchangeable. However, if therapists feel there is a special meaning conveyed by one term and not the other, this nuance is lost in Spanish. Another close word, “frontera” (“frontier”), runs into similar issues.

It gets more complicated

This is a complex issue that gets more complicated when we take into account that there are multiple variations of Spanish. Not only there are cultural differences between Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Peruvians and Spaniards, but there are limits to the commonality of our language.

And of course this is not an exclusive issue for Spanish. Many Brazilians might argue that “saudade” is more specific than the generic “longing” it is usually translated as, and Germans will continue experiencing “Schadenfreude” even if, unfortunately, there is no equivalent word in English or Spanish.

Language is only a subset of our cultural awareness as therapists but a very important one. I have experienced firsthand the way my two languages have shaped my identity and life narrative, and I see it when working with Spanish-speaking clients. Becoming aware of the differences in the meaning clients and therapists give to words is critical even if we are not bilingual. Each family system is a sub-culture in itself so, in a way, each one of our clients grew up in a culture different than ours.

Santiago Delboy