Lost in Translation

I used to tell people my specialty was English-to-English translation. We have so much trouble understanding each other even when two native speakers of the same language talk. Expectations and what we want to hear often get in the way. Wanting to be heard (instead of wanting to hear) and planning your response before the other person speaks get in the way. I would hear two people talking past each other and quickly rephrase for each of them and they would come to an understanding.

This is not to say that I don’t have the same problem with some people. It is though we speak two different languages which contain the same words.

In my work I spend a lot of time translating medical into English. Doctors tend to forget that normal people have no clue what most medical terms mean. People don’t want to seem dumb so they smile and nod. When the doctor leaves, I’ll ask what they understood of that. Frequently the answer is “nothing”, so I translate.

This was prompted by someone else’s post about actual language and cultural differences, which prompted this memory [cue harp music for a flashback].

I was in Nicaragua and our regular interpreter was unavailable. One of our group leaders offered to translate. Someone asked a local farmer how life had changed since the revolution. She said it was harder to get food now. The interpreter said something completely different, vaguely and rhetorically in support of the revolution. Two of us called her on it. She tried to say that the woman didn’t really understand the question. We argued that she clearly did understand the question but the answer was not the one you wanted to hear. After a bit more discussion, with the interpreter and the farmer (who made it clear she understood the question) in Spanish, then the group in English, we agreed to continue, with the translator knowing that she couldn’t get away with that degree of “interpreting” another’s thoughts and statements.

This also led to thoughts about language, fluency, and on-line translators. On-line translators are handy if you know both languages and are uncertain of the nuances of a particular word choice. They do not work if you think you can get the gist of a large work from an algorithm. If in doubt, listen to this:

“Let it Go” run through Google Translate through multiple languages and back to English. If you want the original English lyrics, they’re here.

I used to get asked if I were fluent in Spanish. Usually I just said no. Sometimes I answered that I wasn’t sure I was fluent in English. Other times I thought about what fluency meant.

After five weeks of language school I took a week off to travel and try to incorporate what I’d learned. Standing on a train, I started chatting with a local school teacher. After we’d talked for a while, he went to get a bottle of pop and asked if I wanted one. While he was gone I checked my watch and realized we’d been talking for two hours; a wide-ranging discussion that made me realize that: 1) I was thinking in Spanish and conversing naturally; 2) I had just fulfilled the goal I’d set five years earlier in Ecuador when the owner of the hotel where I was staying tried to initiate a similar conversation and I was unable to carry out my half.

I thought I had told this story before but, searching through the archives, I can’t find it. It was about January 1977. I was going through a home and roommate-related crisis. I called a friend in Berkeley, who knew the issues and people involved. He suggested the best solution was to join him and a friend (who had just arrived from Australia) on a trip to Colombia and Ecuador. On that trip, I could sort things out, and things here could sort themselves out.The idea had merit. A week later, I met them in Miami and we flew to Barranquilla, Colombia. We stepped off the plane and into customs. Since S & C had met while traveling extensively in Guatemala, I presumed they spoke Spanish pretty well. The customs agent asked C how long she would be in the country. She smiled. He repeated the question. She smiled more sweetly. He turned to S with the same question. He smiled, more broadly and sweetly than C. I realized: 1) they had gotten through Guatemala on friendliness and smiles; 2) they knew not a lick of Spanish; 3) I was now responsible to communicate for three. I told the customs agent that we all wanted 90 day visas, he stamped our passports, and we were on our way.

My Spanish got us through shopping, getting meals, finding our way, renting hotel rooms- all the basics of being a traveler. One rainy day (in Baños, Ecuador), while S & C were in another town, I was sitting in bed reading. The hotel owner stuck his head in the door, said hello, came in, sat down, and struck up a conversation. Within minutes (seconds?) I had my English-Spanish dictionary out. [It was years later that I bought a Spanish dictionary, recognizing that knowing a language meant learning to define words, not translate them.] Within a few more minutes I realized I was over my head. I did not know how to talk to anyone. I could conduct business, but I couldn’t talk. I apologized, he left, I cried. I felt shallow. I vowed that I would learn to speak Spanish and have that conversation some day.

After a week of vacation I went back to school for three more weeks. Was I fluent at that point? How about five years later when I went back for a refresher course and, as my final exam after three weeks, I gave a 45 minute slide presentation (on my work in Nicaragua) to the school in Spanish? Or when I returned to the school for a visit after 3 months working in Nicaragua and someone told me that the secretary said I was back in town and now spoke with a Nicaraguan accent? (I’ll admit I was flattered. For a Mexican to say I sounded Nicaraguan and not North American was one of the best compliments I had ever received.)

I realized that we have word-finding difficulties in any language. If the language is familiar enough, we find a way to talk around the missing word if it doesn’t come to us. There are words that we may not know, but we can discuss the concept in a way that gets the meaning across without the missing word. Ultimately, I discovered that fluency is a continuum, not a point. I’m pretty fluent in English after speaking it for more than 65 years. I’m less fluent in Spanish and considerably less fluent than I was when I was cutting down trees in the forest and miscommunication could mean death from falling tree.

Daddy, what’s money?

You’ve heard all of the COVID-19 conspiracy stories. I don’t need to relate them here. But there is a conspiracy you may not have heard of. The conspiracy to get rid of money.

Once we traded things, deciding their relative values. Then we traded precious metals for goods. We melted metals and formed them into coins. The metals became more valuable than the coins so we switched to cheaper metals. Quarters, instead of silver, are made of copper and nickel. Nickels are mostly copper, not nickel. Pennies are now mostly zinc, not copper. We developed paper money, symbolic of those metals – cheaper yet. US dollars used to be “silver certificates” and promised that the US held silver equal to its value to guarantee it. Then we made the dollar wholly symbolic, with the US government’s trustworthiness the only guarantee of its value.

Banks started making it harder to go inside. Cash came only from ATMs – once you could get $5 bills from them, then only twenties. Bills became harder to find. I rarely see a ten any more. The banks wanted you to use plastic cards instead of money. It cost them more to handle actual cash than virtual transactions. Then the virtual transactions became more virtual, with phone apps. And if they could charge you a service fee for doing it the way that was cheaper for them, so much the better.

Gas stations put card readers outside and didn’t want you to come in and use money any more. Just swipe a plastic card. The pandemic came and my neighborhood grocery store no longer accepted money. Soon the only place I could still use cash was the hospital cafeteria. Then they wanted me to use exact change, saying there was a coin shortage. And now, the one cashier who still took real money quietly told me that, starting tomorrow, I would no longer be able to use cash. I could use a phone app, a payroll deduction, or a credit/debit card. Is the money in my pocket about to become obsolete?

Time was, when someone opened a store, they would frame their first dollar. How soon will it be that storekeepers frame their last dollar? As U. Utah Phillips (The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest) wondered aloud 50 years ago about a child wondering what a train is after they disappeared, I now wonder if my son’s child will one day ask, “Daddy, what’s money?”

Super Spreader Saturday/Roxbury Ride

The first home football game of the season. 80,000 maskless and screaming fans packed together. It’s foggy, so little airflow. What you exhale, I inhale. Once the air gets hot enough, it will rise out of the stadium. Since the air is already saturated with moisture, the droplets will be left behind. The good news is that 90% of the university community has been vaccinated. The bad news is that the university community makes up less than ½ of the audience.

These were my thoughts as I headed out of town, sort of fulfilling a long-term fantasy. As I ride to work, I fantasize continuing on out of town instead of stopping. Today I did that. I was on the road at 9:30 AM, nearly 4 hours later than if I were riding to work on a Saturday morning. I had the day off for the holiday weekend – one of the perks of working every Saturday for 20+ years is that I get a three day weekend when holidays roll around. Of course, so does everyone else, except that they have to work one holiday weekend/year and I don’t. The sidewalks were packed. Traffic through campus was bumper-to-bumper. It was good to get out.

I rode to the once-iconic Roxbury Tavern. Tom had taken over an old roadhouse and decided he wanted a new clientele – people who would sit and eat and talk, with drinking incidental to that. He got rid of the TVs, the video games, the pool table, and the piano. He instituted nightly specials – not the usual bar food, but a Cuban night and (on Wednesdays when we stopped in after rides) an Italian night among them. Spaghetti with Italian sausage and garlic bread was on the menu. Victor was more prone to the mushroom burger and homemade fries, which came with Tom’s own garlic or jalapeño ketchup. Homemade pickles were on the table as an appetizer. The beers were from a small brewery just down the road. Tom was a curmudgeon, and I mean that in the best way. On the other hand, on Paul’s birthday, he serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” on trumpet, guitar, kazoo, and nose flute. I probably told that story here before, but it seemed worth repeating.

Tom retired and there were hints of small changes with the new ownership. Perusing the menu, it looks like a typical roadhouse with the bar food usual suspects. I haven’t been inside. They do have a couple of goats living in the backyard, so it isn’t totally a typical roadhouse.

I stopped to say hello to the goats and have a snack. The bar wasn’t open yet. The goats had less to say than the sheep a few miles down the road. The cattle tend to just watch, sometimes with what seems like idle curiosity, and sometimes looking like they wonder about those humans sometimes. While I anthropomorphize, do they bovimorphize? The town roads were quiet. The fog slowly lifted and the grey was just a little higher off the ground. I had in mind 70 or more miles, but at about 50 the clouds started leaking. Rather than wash off the fresh wax-based chain lube from this morning, I cut the ride short, ending at 61 miles. I froze some cherries earlier this year, so Sunday I baked a Labor Day cherry pie in lieu of riding.

Breaking news! I just learned that the early discount for Cycle America‘s coast-to-coast tour in 2022 has been extended to September 18! Now’s your chance if you want to see the continent the way it was meant to be seen – by bike!

A great Vuelta a España comes to an end. Primož Roglič gave up the red jersey for the middle stages when he didn’t need the pressure. When the chips were down, he answered every challenge. He won the final time trial for his 4th stage win, to go with his Olympic Gold Medal in the same event. It was his third consecutive victory in the Spanish tour. For those who need people from the US in order to feel a connection, Sepp Kuss of Colorado rode brilliantly in support of Roglič, frequently setting the pace in the mountains to narrow the field to the elite climbers, and finishing 8th overall. Lawson Craddock of Texas rode well in support of his teammate Magnus Cort Nielsen, who won three stages. Joe Dombrowski of Virginia finished 39th overall. Thanks to NBC for great coverage, beautiful shots of the scenery, and daily updates on YouTube for those of us who don’t pay their subscription fee.

The Euskaltel -Euskadi team from the Basque region of Spain was invited to the tour. The bikes they ride come from Orbea, a worker-owned co-operative in Mallabia, Spain. In my youth, we dreamed of a co-operative commonwealth; a world in which the production and distribution of goods were owned by the people – not by the government in the name of the people, but by co-operatives owned by the people they served. We worked to build such a system, with co-ops providing food, books, bikes, housing, taxi service, engineering, banking, health care, and car repair; but we fell short of the yogurt production facility we wanted to start. Not all of those co-ops survived, and the association was loose. We discovered that the co-operative commonwealth exists in Mondragón. Mondragón is a network of 96 co-ops employing 81,000 people and divided into four sectors: finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. Orbea is one of those co-ops, owned by the workers who build the bikes.

The Ride (getting closer)

Carol was the Nurse Case Manager for Trauma. At daily rounds, she was often the only one who got my jokes. Everyone else looked puzzled. In turn, I was the only one who got her cultural references. Everyone else looked at us blankly.

She turned in her resignation on short notice. It was whispered that she had cancer. Soon I saw the notice for her funeral – on a Saturday, so I had to remember her the way I knew her – by working. In her obituary I noted that she was 3-4 months younger than I; thus the same high school graduation year. Not only did we think alike, but we had the same cultural touchstones. Like Geoph, it was pancreatic cancer. Like Geoph, it was fast.

My first personal encounter with cancer (that I recall) was my favorite singer. The call went out for a bone marrow donor and platelet donations. While donating platelets I was tested but not a bone marrow match. Kate Wolf died soon after. She sang of cancer (not her own) in her cover of Muriel Hogan’s “Agent Orange”.

I will be riding to benefit the Carbone Cancer Center on September 26; 100 miles or so. If you can, please add to my donation at: https://runsignup.com/half-fast I ride to remember the friends I have lost and I ride to try to keep that list from getting any longer. Thank you. If you have stories you want to share, please add them in the comments.