The right words to say | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | May 26, 2016

Finding the right words to say is something we do every day. When telling someone we love them or trying to be convincing or explaining a concept, we often think that if we could just say the right thing, the right way, all would be right with the world.

A one-hit wonder from the ‘80s promised true love if … “I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say. I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be.”

More recently, Snow Patrol sang, “Right about now if I'd found the right words to say … something told me we'd be happy forever.”

Those are pretty high expectations for something as small as a word. It’s especially lofty when you consider that studies show that people need to hear something five times before they comprehend it.

We forget 40 percent of what we learn in 20 minutes and 90 percent after a month. Oddly, when testing recognition of two-language word pairs, like “good” and “bueno,” forgetting dropped to as low as 12 percent in those same 20 minutes.

Is there something about learning words in two languages that challenges us to hear and remember more?

The art of translating words has been around since the “Epic of Gilgamesh” in 2000 B.C., initiating a philosophical debate between the literal “metaphrase” and the subjective “paraphrase,” with most thinkers on the paraphrase side.

Two words from different languages can never be exactly the same since they almost always have multiple secondary meanings. Philo of Alexandria (25-50 A.D.) was an early translator of the Bible and posited that literal interpretations are “stifling” since they don’t incorporate the culture or values of words.

Knowing more of what is behind words expands our understanding of the person saying them.

Dictionaries and resource books are not enough to appreciate the many complexities and implications of words.

My mom, a brilliant translator and interpreter, has people around the world to ask when she is looking for the #most# correct word to choose.

I treasure the conversations she and I have over the right words – we can say so much about what we care about through the analysis.

I think she would agree with John Dryden, a poet and translator like her, who in the 15th century said, “Words appear literally graceful, but what is beautiful in one language is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another.”

I toil over the words on this page every other week, knowing they can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or worst, inconsequential.

My favorite reference book is a thesaurus (ever since I was 11 and my dad asked me to find a better word than “stupid”), and in fact, I looked up several words before deciding on “inconsequential” in the previous line.

Words do matter, in how good we can make each other feel, how well we express ourselves, and how productively, or not, we share our values across cultures. Words help us gain understanding.

In American slang, the word “word” has become an expression of agreement, and in an effort to increase retention of the concept, I’ll also offer “palabra.”


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