How can you do that?

By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations

Lea esta bitácora en español

“How can they do that?” —Culturally informative question or criticism?
“How can you do that?” —Informative question or criticism?

A couple of weeks ago, while having a conversation with a friend about some things I did not understand in relation to two other friends, I asked, “How can they do that?” And then I followed with “I don’t understand.”

Unaware of having triggered anything at all, I was surprised some three days later by my friend’s assessment of my character as my being a critical and judgmental person.

After deep thought I came to the conclusion that, sometimes, even if we communicate in the same language, we might in fact not necessarily speak the same language.

When I turned things around in my head, I realized how, unwittingly, we can get “lost in translation.” But, why do we get lost in translation? Well, there are many reasons for that, of course, but a couple of them could simply be that we don’t ask for clarification when we hear something we don’t truly understand or something that bothers us somehow; we simply take what we hear at the face value we give it, though not necessarily at the face value our interlocutor intended.

“How can you do that?” —Culturally informative question or criticism?

Another factor playing a role in this miscommunication could also be the cultural component of the exchange; something that is culturally acceptable to one person might not necessarily be as culturally acceptable to another. Since we might not always keep cultural differences in mind when we speak with other people, we are not necessarily well prepared to continually catch on the cultural nuances of a given conversation or interaction.

As human beings, we are learning each day how to better interact with the people surrounding us. We make efforts; we learn to switch words around, or look for gentler synonyms, when we speak so as to avoid offending or confusing those we interact with; we become more aware of our differences, we try to be as careful as we can.

This is not only true in our personal lives, but also in our professional ones. Nonetheless, it is impossible to be 100 percent on top of every single nuance in our own language; much less of every single cultural subtlety involved in the exchange when the person we are talking to has a mother tongue and a cultural background different from ours.

The art of communication is based on listening attentively and asking questions when we don’t understand what is being shared with us. Our professional life usually involves constant interaction with hundreds of people of different backgrounds and languages. Through my long experience as a translator I have learned, and continue to learn, that what is being said cannot always be understood based on my personal background or culture. What is being said comes directly nuanced by the background and culture of who is saying it.

It is important that I understand exactly, or as close to exactly as possible, what the other person is saying or means to convey. But, how can I do that? How can I really understand what the other person is really saying without looking at it through the filter of my personal culture and background?

The answer is right in front of me: In order to understand what another person is sharing with me I need to, first eliminate the filter of my personal culture and background, and then to ask questions in order to make sure that I am truly understanding what the other person is saying, where his or her expressions really come from.

Your turn: How can you do that?

Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC


Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.
Adriana Adarve

About the Author: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.

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Published by Adriana Adarve

I’m Adriana Adarve, a multilingual, plurilingual, multicultural and pluricultural English to Spanish freelance translator. My primary interests—besides my passion for languages—are in science, chemistry, and medicine. That is the reason why I concentrate on medical, scientific and technical translations. I am also passionate about cultural diversity, which means that my translations always take into account my clients’ culture, as well as that of the audience for which the translations are intended.


  1. Hello Maria, you’re very welcome! I do think it is an interesting perspective that helps us realize were our reactions sometimes come from. It also helps us set aside expectations on people’s reactions when we honor their freedom to react according to their own history 🙂

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