“Agite, captate eam!” yells the Roman centurion bounding across the grass. His soldiers charge, all shouting in Latin, “Dede! Prende eam!” The chased tries to translate while running away three times as fast as the legs permit. Now, captate is the singular imperative form of capere and means to seize or capture: eam is feminine, singular, accusative, so that’s her. Better run faster.
But Latin, it occurs at this moment to the fugacious, is rare these days; as is being chased by incensed Roman soldiers. The penny drops, making no sound. It won’t. Because this is a dream.
Several weeks ago, before the global pandemic, I found myself in the kitchen with a few of my co-workers from the Blueprint Localization team. While the coffee machine gurgled and coughed, we chatted about dreams and how you might be able to tell that you are in one if you find yourself fresh out of spinning tops. (Tip: Try tying your shoelaces. If you are in a dream you will find you can’t.)
I have always been curious about my dreams, and this conversation made me curious about the dreams of my colleagues. Or, more specifically, it made me curious about their dreams in relation to the medium that is our bread and butter: language. The Blueprint Localization team’s workspace is by nature a multilingual environment. Everyone is at least bilingual, and some members speak three or four languages fluently. We are unique in that we support over twenty-five languages and are still growing. So, I asked myself, “How does this influence something as personal and intimate as our dreams?”
A little over a decade ago, I was studying abroad in Japan and lived in an international dorm. The cultural and linguistic diversity was astounding for someone from a small town west of Cologne. I made friends with students from France, Hawaii (not technically its own country, but some people and history make the argument that it should be), and Canada, as well as those from Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Tonga, Indonesia, and, of course, Japan. Being the only language we all shared, our lingua franca was English. Very soon, I noticed that not only were my overall English skills improving but that I was having dreams in English. That was something I had not anticipated.
Studies confirm that speaking plays a central part in our dreams. Dreams center around social interaction, and the major form of such interaction is speech. Contrary to anecdotal accounts in which the dreamer reports speaking a language unknown to them or one incongruous to the dream’s context, most (though not all) dream speech is grammatically correct and appropriate to the dream scenario. This is because language selection enters the dream construction fairly late based on contextual relevance to a temporary imagined situation. Imagine it like the preparations for a play: first, the backdrop is raised—the personally meaningful memories that determine a dream episode’s thematic content. Then, the props are set on stage—parameters of the momentary imagery. Finally, the actors enter and begin speaking.
One co-worker interviewed for this post reported chatting in Portuguese, a language they speak only rarely, during a bizarre dream-date with the football player Cristiano Ronaldo. Another told me about a heart-to-heart in his native Spanish with his stepfather in the mirror (and why wouldn’t he be there?). But when the dream shifted and co-workers from the Blueprint Localization team appeared, his dream self-switched to English.
So, the very act of localizing follows us into our dreams. “Last night, I dreamt of translating patch notes,” said another member of my Dream Team. “I was switching back and forth between English and Finnish for the entire dream.”
In all instances, the conversations were coherent and thematically appropriate, supporting the theory that knowledge of several languages does not impede their correct use within dreams, and suggesting that high-level processing systems serving different languages in the brain are largely shared.
A second contributing factor simultaneously found in the waking state is referred to as the “complementarity principle”. According to emeritus professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, François Grosjean, the complementarity principle is “one of the most pervasive aspects of individual bilingualism.” In a nutshell, bilinguals and trilinguals use their languages for different domains of life, i.e. with different people and for different purposes. How early you started learning; the language(s) of the media you consume and how much of it you consume; the languages used at work, and between family members and friends, all play an integral part in how proficiency develops.
This directly affects the field of Translation and Localization. For a global business, content needs to be localized in the correct context not only to ensure coherence for a target audience, but also to guarantee that products and services resonate with audiences worldwide. Localization specialists, interpreters, and translators therefore need a significant overlap of these domains in order to provide accurate, culturally appropriate translations that feel not only useful or entertaining but natural.
Exposure, then, plays the most crucial role of all in language acquisition and proficiency. Languages in dreams are often identical to and reinforced by those we use daily. Sleep, especially during the phase called REM (Rapid Eye Movement), is considered the “most elaborate form of nocturnal information processing.” It’s no surprise then that the flight from the Romans described above occurred while the dreamer was attending a ten-week intensive course in Latin. (Imagine that: Latin from morning till night! Tempus horribilis, no question.)
The biggest change for everyone consulted for this piece came after they had moved to a new country. One particular polyglot colleague lived in Italy for five years. At arrival, their Italian was limited to deciphering a restaurant menu. But hearing and speaking it every day thereafter, at home with their partner and at the university where they began studying translation and interpreting, soon changed that. As time and fluency progressed, they began dreaming more and more in Italian until these dreams were more frequent than dreams in their native language.
This trade-off can initially feel like a loss of identity. Moving to another country and immersing oneself entirely in a new culture is daunting. It means leaving everyone and everything you have known behind with a one-way ticket in your hand. It can be a lonely journey and noticing the language you have spoken all your life recede can make it more so. Going home on vacation, you will realize that you are no longer the person that left.
But there is another, much more positive side. One interviewee put it better than I could. “Once I’d moved to the US, I spoke English everywhere. At home with my spouse, with their family, with our friends, and at work. Within a month of arriving, I not only thought almost exclusively in English, but I also dreamt in English. It felt incredibly strange and at the same time incredibly rewarding and exciting. Language is integral to our identity, and knowing a second—or third, or fourth—well enough for it to take over your dreams shows how much you have grown and how much more there is to you as a person than you perhaps thought.”
Everyone agreed how much working in the Localization team at Blueprint has enriched their lives. They have noticed their native languages returning to their dreams, while the cultural and linguistic diversity of the team have also broadened their perspectives, giving them new ideas to think and, indeed, dream about.
“Working at Blueprint has reacquainted me with my native Chinese and broadened the settings in which I use it. Since I started, I have had more dreams in Chinese or partly in Chinese. I also find that with learning a little of so many other languages, my abilities in all languages have improved.”
“I feel privileged and happy that I get to speak languages again that had become a bit rusty,” said another contributor. “It’s part of my day, and I always look forward to it.”
And for those instances when the dream cannot come up with an appropriate language, we can always fall back on good old telepathy—and, of course, translation. You could say, we localize in our sleep.
I would like to express my gratitude to my Dream Team. Your stories are what made this blog post possible. Thank you!
Blueprint Localization is always looking for talented people. Check out our open positions to learn more.