What's the Word Translating for My Friends Is My Love Language
Whenever I travel, I make a point to speak the local language as much as possible.
Her hands on the wheel, Alanna asked me to call Paolo’s restaurant for a table for three. She knows I love making dinner reservations, even more so now that I get to do it in Italian. I pulled up Il Caffè degli Amici in my contacts and, as requested, gave them a ring.
We had just picked up Anna from the train station in Florence. As we cruised down the autostradale, we pointed out to Anna—exhausted in the back of our rented Mercedes after her trek from Brooklyn—the vineyards and castellos that had become as familiar to me and Alanna as the Manhattan Bridge or the Hollywood Hills (that is to say: familiar enough). The landscape was sun-washed, at once green and gold. The Botticelli clouds, as Alanna called them, were perfect.
It was the third week of Alanna’s and my temporary life in Tuscany, the latest fruit of our seven-year friendship and our months-long scheme to escape a burning America, if only for three weeks. After Puerto Rico and Paris, this was our third trip overseas together—our first flying in from different cities (her from California, me from New York)—and we were unceasingly giddy at the scale of it: We were hosting rotating groups of friends at a four-bedroom villa we were renting in a town of three hundred. There was a public drinking fountain in the piazza that dispensed sparkling water. We had a backyard with a jacuzzi and a view of the Chianti hills. I ate good cheap prosciutto almost every day. The trip had long been a fantasy of Alanna’s and mine, the promise of a joint time for rest. On one rare afternoon together, we sat on her couch in Los Angeles and decided, yes, let us give this to ourselves.
Someone at Paolo’s picked up the phone. “Buongiorno,” I said. “Vorrei una prenotazione per cena stasera. Una tavola per tre, per favore. Alle diciannove e trenta? Perfetto, grazie. Ciao, ciao.”
We have a table for seven-thirty, I confirmed in English to Alanna. Behind me, Anna said, “I didn’t know you spoke Italian.” I don’t, I replied, not yet. But after almost a month of immersion, I’d already memorized key words and phrases. Stasera is tonight, oggi is today; cena is dinner, pranzo is lunch; un bicchiere di vino is a glass of wine, un’altra bottiglia is another bottle. Italy was my classroom, Google Translate my teacher.
Though I was the self-appointed translator and semi-sufferable know-it-all of our group—interpreting menus, ordering for the table, asking how much souvenirs cost with my advanced beginner Italian and Duolingo accent—Alanna and all our friends took up the language with gusto too. They were undeterred whenever they slipped into Spanish, or defaulted to French on the fly because there was nothing to lose and everything to gain. What we lacked in fluency, we made up for in earnestness, which was received warmly by almost everyone we met.
Hugo and Fiorella, the grocers across the piazza from our villa, grew accustomed to our faces and excitable American voices, lending us spoons (the tricky cucchiai ) for our yogurts (simply yogurt ) that we ate on their terrace. Marco, who ran the taverna one block down, would relent and welcome us for dinner when the villagers wanted aperitivo. Even Marco’s short-legged dog Benny (a diminutive of, I like to think, Benedetto) recognized Alanna when he was wandering, leashless, in the piazza late one night. Alanna led him back to the taverna—“Andiamo, Benny!”—and his owners were grateful for his return.
I’m the one visiting someone’s homeland; it’d be rude to make them speak my language when I’m the one who doesn’t live here.
And despite (or, perhaps, because of) our impassioned and imperfect Italian, we were the most memorable tourists to ever dine at Paolo’s restaurant—at least according to his daughter, who served us often alongside her father. We regularly made the five-minute drive to their tavola calda, and they always had a place for us, gli scrittori americani. At the end of our trip, when we said goodbye, Paolo gave us souvenir wine keys emblazoned with “Il Caffè degli Amici” on the side. We promised we’d come back in the future, with improved Italian in tow. Alla prossima, he said. See you soon.
Of course, not all our conversations in Italy went off without a hitch. We could ask “Quanto costa?” or “Cos’è questo?” with confidence, but catching the reply—that a Fendi purse was three-thousand two-hundred ninety-two euros, or that a mysterious paté on our antipasti plate was actually chicken liver—was another matter. What did matter was that we tried. By beginning our interactions with such gestures, the willingness to meet another person where they are, we invited the same attitude in kind. Whether with servers, shopkeeps, or fellow tourists, they’d all lean in to listen when we wanted to be heard.
This is why, whenever I travel, I make a point to speak the local language as much as possible. It’s not an easy thing, possibly making mistakes and embarrassing yourself in another tongue, but it’s also part of, I believe, being a gracious guest. I’m the one visiting someone’s homeland; it’d be rude to make them speak my language when I’m the one who doesn’t live here. Moreover—and this is my very personal opinion!—to insist on speaking only English abroad is to give off a particularly American stink. It reeks of the presumption that the world revolves around the American traveler by virtue of their blue passports and the broken country that prints them.
(Briefly: I developed a toothache five days into our Tuscan trip. In the United States, an emergency visit to the dentist would’ve cost me hundreds of dollars. In Italy, I found a dentist in the village next to ours. “Ho mal di denti,” I said, and he peered into my mouth, gave me a prescription for antibiotics, and waved me off when I tried to pay for his services. Later, at Paolo’s down the road, I told him about the dentist visit—“Sì, il dentista, Stefano! He come here all the time!”—and he gave us some juice. Here, care is a given thing.)
Of course, when you lack the appropriate vocabulary or a native speaker’s speed overwhelms you, it’s tempting to shut down, to never mind speaking up. If you manage to string together a sentence, so much can still get lost in translation. Mistake cinquanta for quindici at a shop and suddenly you’re strapped for bus fare to get back to your Airbnb. And sometimes, the locals don’t give you a chance. In Paris, their English is often better than your French; in Berlin, their English is better than even your English. But no matter the circumstance, it’s a universal truth: Being unable to communicate is akin to feeling powerless, adrift at sea in a rudderless boat. That’s why it’s always a good idea to pack an oar; Lonely Planet phrasebooks are ten bucks.
All that said, I’ve noticed—in Europe, at least—that English is, for better or for worse, the default bridge language anyway between non-English speakers of various stripes. (A symptom of Western colonialism and cultural imperialism, naturally.) One night at Marco’s, a family near our table spoke French among themselves, deciphered the Italian menu with Google Translate, and ordered their dinner in English. In turn, Marco explained the stuffed zucchini flowers to them in English too. No one spoke it perfectly. Everyone was meeting in the middle.
That, I think, is the act of translation at its heart: finding common ground, a shore that all parties can reach. (Here, I mean translation as the informal kind of language interpretation that happens between friends and strangers, lovers and maybe enemies; less so the literary act of translation, of making a text written for one audience accessible to another.) Translation is never an exact equation; mi chiamo is not exactly my name is , but it gets the job done. To translate is to approximate meaning. What words, in this language, communicate most closely the ideas and feelings I have in another?
Effective translation is facilitated by an effective translator, who ensures that everyone present in the conversation feels heard, understood, even cared for. As such, there’s a power that comes with being a translator. You can control the flow of the conversation, the day, the entire trip. You are the one to express everyone’s needs and wants, to ensure they are met. As an ideal translator, you are diplomatic and you hear everyone out. You don’t make anyone feel stupid for asking questions. Much like a gracious host, you care.
So, I should admit, I was not always the ideal translator during our Tuscan trip. I appointed myself to the role because, in one aspect, I filled it perfectly: I am a type-A organizer who derives great pleasure in calling up car services to set up shuttles to airports and train stations; in talking to monks at a Benedictine monastery to set up a tour of the grounds; in making spaghetti appointments . I am not OCD, I think, but I’m told that my hypercompetence is a trauma response. It’s more evident while traveling: I become the stereotypical Travel Dad, arriving four hours early for international flights with all necessary documents in color-coded folders. Combine that with my unwarranted confidence in speaking Italian on a trip through Italy and you get, as it were, a Dadzilla.
There’s a power that comes with being a translator. You can control the flow of the conversation, the day, the entire trip.
To spare my friends and me (mostly me) our blushes, I won’t go into specifics here. But rest assured that the classic insecurities of every high-achieving gay boy flared up in choice moments, intermittently reducing me to a schoolmarm, a diva, a bully. More than twice, I apologized for my behavior by covering a meal. “My treat,” I said at an espresso bar, “for being a little bitch at lunch.” And whether or not my friends thought I was being a little bitch, I cringed at how the self-assigned role of translator brought out parts of me that I hate, particularly this nervous need to be the cleverest one in any group.
But translating when I could help—which is part of being a good Travel Dad and, more crucially, a good friend—also reminded me to emphasize and celebrate the parts of me that I am proud of. For one, I like to be as hospitable as I can. In the villa, I acted as sous chef for Hope whenever she made dinner for us. In Florence, I walked slowly with Caroline after she hurt her knee. In the car, whenever Ashley drove, I played her fave Janet Jackson as I navigated with Google Maps.
Whenever I insisted that I didn’t need help cooking meals and cleaning the kitchen, I really did mean it. I wanted everyone to relax, to give Anna another moment in the jacuzzi, Bolu time to finish her book, Alanna a few more minutes of nap time. It was one part a manifestation of my desire to be a homemaker, another part an exercise in control—I promise, I’m working on it. If nothing else, it was a translation of how I tried to be a gracious host. I’m told “acts of service” is my love language.
“Love and translation look alike in their grammar,” writes the writer and translator Andres Neuman in this short essay , translated by George Henson from the Spanish. “To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together.” I love this idea of translation as a collaborative effort, a process in which inaccuracy is not a bug but a feature—not a mistranslation but a making of something new, understood intimately and only by two people. This framing also posits love as an ongoing project of developing a shorthand between you and yours.
This sounds much like Alanna’s and my shared working theory of love and friendship: The longer you know and care for another, and they you, the more you know each other’s histories and contexts, ultimately creating a shared history and context. You come to understand each other well enough that you strip down the language you share to its barest essentials. In communicating with your most beloved, translation is built in—care expressed with a check-in text, a couch offered, a trip halfway around the world. Alanna and I used to dream of relationships like this. How lucky we are to have made them.
Alanna called our time in Italy a friend retreat : a chance for far-flung friends to reset, recharge, and reconnect. Through that lens, I reread that gesture in the car when she asked me to make a reservation at Paolo’s. The job was less a chore and more a gift, from Alanna to me, one friend to another: the opportunity to flex my language skills, to feel in charge, and to help all at once. In giving me something to do, she expressed care for me. Turns out she speaks my language better than I can. To me, “Can you get us a reservation?” actually means I love you .