Translation Frustration

by admin on February 22, 2018

My husband and I love, love, love to travel. We take 2 trips per year, always by ourselves for our anniversary and then sometimes with my family for the other ones.

We would travel regardless of my family but they love to travel as much as I do and we enjoy traveling together very much. My husband’s family has expressed hurt feelings that we have never taken a trip with them. This surprised me because none of them travel often and also traveling takes some planning and not a single one of them are good at planning.

My husband has decided that we will take a family cruise this year. His thought is that this way no one has to be the hostess and with a large group we can be together as much or as little as we like, separating during the day to do activities we enjoy but eating together in the evening.

I think this is a fantastic way for a large family to travel and I think this would be a lot of fun.

Now to the problem. My husband’s family is from another country. Although they have all lived in the U.S for close to 20 years and speak English fluently on a daily basis, when they are together they speak in their native tongue. I understand why but this often leaves me feeling like an outsider and frustrated. My husband, try as he might, always forgets to translate as they speak and I have to constantly nudge him. I finally gave up on that and often just sit with a large group of people feeling like I’m just listening to noise. I’m learning the language but it is extremely difficult and I only catch words here and there and can’t follow the conversation.

They have even done this in my home, which is very rude in my opinion, and my husband had to keep reminding them to speak English. He feels comfortable doing this in our home but not anywhere else. (I need to add he is the youngest and quite shy).

When I think of spending a week of my hard earned money and time sitting there in a huge group not knowing what’s going on, I can hardly stand the thought. How miserable I would be!! As it is now I only have to put up with it a few hours at a time.

I have asked my husband if I could invite my family along so I would have someone to talk to and he thinks his family would be upset by that because we would be intruding on their family time. I explained why and he understands but thinks it would cause tension.

I only get to travel twice per year and I am not willing to give up one of those trips to be cut off from communication.

Any advice for how to approach this? 0425-17

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenn50 February 22, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I have more sympathy for OP than some. Some people REALLY struggle to learn languages, and even if you make a real effort to learn a language, if it’s being spoken rapidly, overlapping and with a regional accent and slang, it can still be difficult to follow even the basics. I enjoy languages and learn them fairly easily, but I struggle to understand things like mechanics, no matter how long and diligently I try. My mechanically apt friends and family don’t expect me to sit through long conversations about diesel engines where I don’t understand, no matter how much they may enjoy it. They either explain what they’re discussing in terms I understand, or discuss something mutually understood. That’s what kind people who care about you do. I think OP should continue to try to learn the language, but I can’t condemn them for not being able to converse yet.

All that said, you are obviously not dealing with people who are placing much value on you joining their conversations at that time. So you have some decisions to make. I don’t spend my leisure time with people who don’t care that they’re making me feel sad and excluded. If you’re committed to going on a trip with them and not bringing a companion, you have some options.

1) I’d make sure they understand that you’re missing out and aren’t happy about it. Ask questions, both in English and in whatever bits of their language you can manage. DO be a pest. They may not realize it matters to you, they may have forgotten you’re not following, or they may not understand how little you actually understand. If it becomes inconvenient enough to have to constantly explain to you, they may find more incentive to switch to a common language.

2) As other posters have suggested, engage a single person to converse with. They will either speak to you in English, help you to understand their language, or reveal an unwillingness to include you, which informs your decisions.

3) If they continue to chatter in their native tongue with no regard to you, stop sitting there like a puppy watching a tennis match struggling and feeling left out. If it’s a mealtime where you need to stay put, you can read, play Candy Crush, knit, mentally plan your next day’s itinerary, people watch, or my personal favorite, imagine wild backstories for the conversations you don’t understand. If it’s discretionary time where you can leave, I’d go do something pleasant by yourself; a swim or hot tub, spa treatment, workout, catch a show, go to BINGO, read in a nice chair on the deck, whatever appeals. If anyone comments on you leaving, I’d be quite plain. “Sadly, I haven’t been able to learn enough of your language to understand when everyone gets talking and I feel really isolated and left out when I’m the only one not included. I don’t want to spend my time feeling sad and unwelcome, so I’ll just let you all catch up while I’m at the pool.”


Lindsey February 26, 2018 at 5:10 am

Good advice.


Miss-E February 22, 2018 at 9:12 pm

OP – I am not in agreement with all the other posters criticizing you for not learning the language or telling you that you simply need to learn it. You mention that you are learning but it’s slow going. Not knowing your life or situation I’m not going to presume you have the time or resources to devote to learning a language. I’m sure after years of being with your husband it’s crossed your mind that learning the language would help.

But I do agre with a previous poster who said you’re probably just going to have to suck it up and deal with the trip. It sounds like the in-law family will be really hurt if you bring your family along, seems like they are looking forward to solo time with you and your husband. Follow the advice others have given: try to engage people one-on-one, book activities that are don’t require conversation to be fun (jet skis!), take some solo time on the ship with a good book and try to just enjoy the trip as much as you can. It’s one trip out of many you will take in your life and it seems like it will mean a lot to your family


Princess Buttercup February 22, 2018 at 10:07 pm

Personally I’d try to learn the language as much as possible.
Remind them that “I’m sorry I can’t understand you if you aren’t speaking English”.
And if they get engrossed in speaking in their language simply announce “since I’m left out of the loop right now, I’m going to go find something else to do and leave you to your thing”. Some may not catch on but some may realize that they keep excluding their family member and being rude. Meanwhile you are off enjoying a walk or show or something.


Lara February 23, 2018 at 12:03 am

Just go on the cruise! This is for your husband, for the sake of his relationship with his family, and your relationship with his family, all of which are worth a little pain and suffering on your part. He travels with your family all the time, don’t begrudge him one trip with his family, however irritating their habit of talking in another language is.

As others have pointed out, you *don’t* have to spend all day with them as a group, only a little time in the evenings. Cruises are full of wonderful activities which you can enjoy the same regardless of what language they’re speaking. And if you want to, you can use the opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with members of his family, by asking them to join you for various things. They’ll talk to you in English when it’s just the two of you. Seriously, while I get that this is tiresome, it seems like such a small sacrifice to make for the sake of your marriage and to make your husband happy.

A lot of commentators are saying that you should just do what you want, regardless of what your husband thinks, invite your family, go on your own separate vacation, etc, but I have to disagree. Those things really seem rather hostile and petty. Metaphorically the same as crossing your arms, saying “Fine!” and flouncing away. Whether your in-laws are in the wrong isn’t the point. Wrong or right, they are still your in-laws, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. You want to have a good relationship with them. Hurting or antagonising them by refusing to vacation with them (or by inviting your own family so that you don’t actually have to spend time with theirs) is not going to benefit your life or marriage in any way. By all means, sit down with whoever you’re closest to in the group, whoever might have influence, and tell them how frustrating you find it to be outside their conversations. Ask them if they would be willing to make a greater effort to include you, for at least some of the discussion. By all means, plan time for just your husband and yourself on board the cruise line. By all means, enjoy yourself to the fullest while you’re there. But don’t snub your husband’s family or refuse to share a family dinner with them, no matter how boring it is. Not if you value your marriage.


THE OP February 23, 2018 at 3:38 am

Hi everyone! OP here. Thank you for the great advice! I will definitely think on these suggestions!

I wanted to give an update and also clarify a few things. First, hubby and I have only been married 2, almost 3 years. We’ve gone on 6 vacations in that timeframe – 3 with my family and 3 by ourselves.

My husband’s language is tribal and very few people in the world can even write it (only 2 in our family can). There is no course to take, no classes, no apps. I have learned some basic phrases and important words but I will never be fluent. Language is not my forte but learning a very complex and unique language at my age is not a reasonable thing to require of someone. This isn’t like picking up Spanish. This is a very difficult language to learn, even for those that are multi-lingual.

Next, i love husband’s family. I really do! Just because I’m frustrated doesn’t mean I hate them. They aren’t TRYING to exclude me. It just happens. It is part of being in an inter-cultural marriage and I’ve accepted this. Spending a hard earned vacation feeling isolated and excluded is totally different than spending a Sunday afternoon feeling that way. Many of you have suggested hubby stand up to them. His culture holds great respect for elders. So much so that you cannot look elders in the eye or even speak directly to them at times. My husband has stood up to them once about speaking in English and that was in our own home. I’m hopeful that he will grow more of a backbone in this area. Others have suggested I single a person out. This has about a 50/50 success rate. Often someone will overhear our conversation and interject in their native tongue and then I’m excluded again.

Update on the cruise: hubby and I decided to go a diplomatic route. We booked a cruise we knew we would enjoy at a time when school was out, so kids could come and at a port that was within driving distance. We created a Facebook event page and invited all of our families and friends to come. We talked to his family about it many times and hoped they would come, but I knew my friends and family would come so I would have a buffer. His family, as I mentioned, are not planners and did not come. My family and friends, who are very much planners, did. We had a ball. His family recently brought up never traveling with us and my husband was quick to point out to them that they could have and didn’t. They couldn’t argue with that.


LizW. February 23, 2018 at 12:37 pm

Bless your husband!
Awesome way to handle the whole situation!


NicoleDSK February 23, 2018 at 3:30 pm

That is rough about the language… can your husband teach some basics?

Can you drag off an individual on an activity ?


Cat2 February 23, 2018 at 5:40 pm

OP, I’m so glad this worked out well.

A potential suggestion for future. Ask them if you all can agree on a hand signal you can use so you can indicate when they’ve accidentally cut you out of the conversation and it can work to alert them to switch back. Ask it in the frame of reference (and be specific to them) that you really do want to join in and talk to them and it becomes hard to do when you’re talking to one or two people and then suddenly the language switches on you, leaving you behind. A lot of times a non-verbal pre-arranged signal goes over better than a spoken reminder. It speaks to a different part of the brain and it’s hard to slip “tone” through a generic hand signal (outside of a few pre-defined gestures, of course).

Another thing you can do is ask if one or two people would be willing to “practice” the language with you for a little while, demonstrating that you’re really trying to learn it – and it will help you since they would be speaking more slowly and you can hold up your hand and say “wait, that went by too fast” or “Grackle? I don’t know that word. What is grackle?”


Anonymous February 26, 2018 at 11:41 am

Ironically, “grackle” is actually an English word–it’s a kind of bird. However, the hand signal idea sounds like a good solution to me. 🙂


bellini February 23, 2018 at 8:29 pm

Thank you for the update! That was a great solution – and if they couldn’t get it together to come, it was on them.


koolchicken February 24, 2018 at 12:52 am

I think opening it to a large group was a brilliant plan. This may be a good option going forward. Perhaps every other year, you pick one trip to open to everyone. Pick a trip like a cruise, or Disney, something where you can choose to spend the day with the entire group, then split up if that’s preferred. But you can still easily do things like breakfast together each day.

My husband is an English only speaker, but his parents are not. Generally they’ve been very good at speaking English only around me. But every now and then they’ll talk to each other in Chinese. Usually us kids ignore them. But sometimes we’ve spoken up, and in such a culture, that’s not always easy. My MIL has taught me a smidge here and there (I’m still rubbish at it), and she gives me phrases to parrot back when we’re out and about, then tells me what I’m saying. Perhaps this is an option for you? Approach one of the older members of the family, perhaps your MIL and explain you’d really love to learn more but you’re struggling. Ask for that person to properly tutor you. I don’t know how you feel about kids, but if you make it clear you want to be able to actively participate in passing on your husbands culture, most potential grandparents will jump at the chance to help you!


Bea February 24, 2018 at 7:18 pm

This clarified so much, thank you! I’m glad you went on the cruise and invited them. Your husband reminding them about that is a huge step in teaching them that they are not excluded in trips after all. I wonder how they expect to take trips with you guys without being willing to plan one out! So silly.


Kristi February 23, 2018 at 10:57 am

A cruise, while an economical way to vacation, is still expensive, as is the week of vacation time used. Given that, and the fact that OP knows she will spend a certain amount of the vacation feeling isolated and/or not being able to participate or follow the family conversation I would absolutely go on the vacation with his family, but absolutely invite your family as well. You should be able to enjoy your vacation as much as they (his family) will. You can spend as much time with them as feels comfortable and meaningful, but then be able to have your own long conversations and group chats with your family in a language you understand. It doesn’t seem a bit selfish to me for you to handle it this way, and if they complain or think you are being selfish, surely they must understand your sense of isolation when everyone is engaged in conversation you can’t participate in. Plus – his family will get to spend lots of time with your husband, on vacation, without the constant awareness that one person in the group is not enjoying herself because of the language barrier.


Anonymous February 23, 2018 at 1:12 pm

I just want to state, that I feel your pain OP. I once spent two days helping out in a boyfriends kitchen with his mother and aunt whose native tongue is Shona. They didn’t speak in English at all and chatted and laughed the whole time. I don’t mind hearing languages that I can’t understand but the truth is I was participating in the family work and being completely ignored at the same time.

I dated a Bangladeshi man once and we spent an evening with his friends. After four hours of no one talking to me I tried to retire to read. I was told I was being impolite and sat in silence for the rest of the night.
He told me I should just join in, speaking English, but it’s really hard to interrupt when you don’t know what they’re talking about.
The one time I tried, it turned out I interrupted a tense conversation about a cousin who had been jailed in Egypt.
So I could talk about my sisters birthday cake.

I had that same boyfriend over to my family’s place. They never speak in Farsi when an English speaker is there but I told them to do it just for an hour so he can see what it’s like. He got mad and left.

I just wanted to relay this because to be ignored for hours, to be told your intolerant and you should just do this and that and that it’s no big deal is not true.

It’s also good practice for people who speak English as a second language to become immersed. I’ve spoken English since I was six, but if I speak Farsi for an evening (I still always think in Farsi) my English is disoriented the next day.
Of course this advice is not something you want to suggest to hubbys parents.


Julia February 24, 2018 at 8:20 am

Would it be possible for you to just bring along one family member (besides our husband) or close friend? The fact that they speak a language they know you don’t know in front of you makes me think they cannot possibly care about your comfort or happiness. Sorry, but that is incredibly rude. So bring your “play pal” to do stuff with when the family excludes you. If someone feels this one person is “intruding” on family time, maybe they will tell you that in English, at which point you can explain that their total lack of care to include you in family gathering is intruding on your vacation fun.


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