By the time we started renovating our Victorian end of terrace in Oxford, I’d been living in the UK for four years. I expected the full renovation project to be difficult for several reasons, but I certainly didn’t expect to face linguistic challenges.
I’m a professional translator, you see. I’m fluent in English. I work with languages. I deal with complex documents such as wills on a daily basis. I’m used to legalese. My husband is Scottish and I understand a variety of accents.
Despite all that, I didn’t spot the linguistic issue that home renovations would pose – I didn’t speak architectural English.
When you reach a certain level of language fluency, you’re often expected to know every word.
‘You’re a translator. How come you don’t know what [insert random highly-specialised or slang word here] means?’
Translators aren’t some kind of walking dictionary and learning a language is a lifetime process. You come across new words all the time. If you think you fully master a language, get a book on a subject matter you know little about and you’ll soon notice a surprising number of words unknown to you.
Languages are learnt out of interest or necessity. I never had a real interest in nor a necessity to know about architecture and construction, so, understandably, my knowledge of technical English in these two fields is quite limited.
This issue isn’t exclusive to foreign languages, though. You can face a similar (yet smaller) challenge in your mother tongue, too. While I’ve been more exposed to architecture and construction language in my native Spanish, I don’t know all the words. I may know the name of many construction materials, for example, but I won’t know how you call a specific type of arch nor many building tools.
As a linguist, I should have spotted the challenge of renovating a house without knowing the subject matter and the specialist language. I didn’t and it turned out to be one of the main sources of stress and frustration for me (and for Husband, too). The fact that UK and Spanish building and construction regulations, requirements and practices are quite different (e.g. things that are the norm in one country aren’t allowed in the other) didn’t help either.
Making renovation decisions as a multilingual couple of first-time buyers is incredibly difficult. Small apparently easy discussions turn into long explanations, checking online dictionaries, misunderstandings, growing frustration and arguments. It’s exhausting!
A conversation about any given decision to be made would go as follows:
Husband would first explain that something needed done or replaced. I’d ask for clarification about the process or certain words. I’d make a (logical for me) suggestion but I’d struggle to find the words. I’d check dictionaries and then clumsily try to get my message across in what would feel like preschool-level of English. Husband would say that my suggestion can’t be done or isn’t allowed. I’d ask why. He’d say something about Conservation Areas or Health and Safety. Sometimes he wouldn’t know why. I sometimes wouldn’t get why and would be annoyed at how illogical and impractical whatever UK rule or practice is. Husband would shrug his shoulders and explain the different solutions to choose from. I’d want to find out what each different solution entails. More explanations would follow. I wouldn’t know some of the terms and I’d check online dictionaries again for definitions. The different solutions would be now clear and ready to choose from. We’d then discuss each solution. Some back and forth would follow (more explanations, clarifications, checking online dictionaries) and we’d eventually make a decision.
Now think of doing this a million times. Think of spending all your weekends and every evening after work discussing renovations. What was once exciting slowly becomes a never-ending hassle which drains your energy and motivation.
You get increasingly tired and fed up. Decision-making fatigue starts kicking in, too, which messes up your already fried brain. You want the renovations to be over so badly, that you soon start making decisions without giving things too much thought; perhaps, you’re unconsciously trying to avoid yet another argument. After taking down walls, extending into the garden, fully renovating all rooms, replacing staircases and windows… who cares about the right finish for door handles!? Yes, those handles are fine, darling. Whatever. Next!
Our renovation process ‘only’ lasted four months and it has been by far the biggest challenge for us as a couple so far.
To any non-native English speaking future renovators: treat the renovation as a linguistic research project. Read articles and magazines, buy specialist books, compile glossaries and start discussions with your partner early on. The more you read and practice, the better you’ll become at discussing technical solutions with your partner, and the more confident you’ll be at dealing with builders.
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Irene Corchado Resmella
I'm a Spanish freelance translator living in the UK since 2011. After fully renovating and selling a Victorian end of terrace house in Oxford, I recently relocated to Edinburgh with my Scottish husband.
In The Home Reporter I share everything home and lifestyle – from renovation stories and interiors inspiration to tips and anecdotes about buying a house, working from home and relocation. Lover of bright spaces, wooden floors and matte finishes.
Find me on Instagram.