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.

Thoughts on the end of the Tour

Tadej Pogačar has won the Tour de France. If you care, you already know that. If you don’t, there must be some other reason to read this.

Pogačar is the youngest rider to win the Tour twice. At 22, he is still eligible to win the Best Young Rider jersey three more times. He dominated the Tour, winning three of the four jerseys. He proved himself to be a well-rounded rider, winning a time trial as well as mountain stages. He proved himself to be an aggressive rider, attacking on climbs when he didn’t have to, when other riders would have been content to follow wheels and know they still kept the overall lead; and his joyous grin when he stood on the podium was infectious.

The green jersey is another story. Mark Cavendish is a one trick pony if there ever was one. While the story of his return is a good one (he was a late addition to his team), as a road racer he does only one thing well. He is the best in the world at accelerating from 40 to 45 mph over the course of 200 meters after being led to that point by his teammates. He tied Eddy Merckx’s all-time record for Tour de France stage wins. Merckx was a complete rider, winning sprints, time trials, mountain stages, the hour record, tours, one day classics… Cavendish wins sprints. He was very nearly the Lanterne Rouge (last place overall for the Tour), beating only two of the 141 riders to finish the race. One of those was his teammate and super domestique Tim Declercq (AKA “The Tractor”).

Cavendish’s hope to break Merckx’s record came down to the final stage. While the final stage is viewed as a formality in terms of the overall win, it is a big deal to others. Finishing with 8 laps on the Champs-Élysées, it gives breakaway riders a chance to be seen by millions out in front, not just out in front in some obscure spot in the French countryside. The breakaways are inevitably caught (this year not until the ultimate lap of the Champs-Élysées), to set up a final moment of glory for the sprinters. Here was Cavendish’s chance to break the record in front of the Paris crowd.

He was beaten to the line by Wout van Aert, a finish I find fitting. Van Aert is a complete cyclist. He won the stage up the iconic Mont Ventoux. He won the final time trial on the penultimate day of the tour, and then he beat Mark Cavendish in the final sprint. He also won the world cyclocross championship three times consecutively. When compared with Merckx after the tour, van Aert said, “Eddy Merckx won the GC of the Tour five times and he won basically every race in the world of cycling. I’m just a really little cyclist compared with Eddy.”

Mont Ventoux, image from Wikipedia

My new favorite bike racer is Guillaume Martin, author of “Socrate à vélo”. Martin is the son of an Aikido teacher and a drama teacher. He holds a Master’s degree in philosophy. “Socrates on a Bike” is said to place famous philosophers in the peloton and discuss them as bike racers with regard to their philosophies. I say “is said to”, as I am relying on the words of others from their reading in French and writing reviews in English. As I don’t read French and have not found the book in English, this is hearsay. Speaking of French, there was a time that French was the language of the peloton. To be accepted among Tour riders, one had to speak some French. At the end of this year’s tour, Tadej Pogačar, a Slovenian speaking in Paris, gave his speech in English. To me, that is sad. The ride is in France, the top three riders were Slovenian, Danish, and Ecuadorian, and he spoke English to the crowd. [Editor’s note: I briefly passed through Richard Carapaz’s home town of Tulcán, Ecuador, just over the border from Ipiales, Colombia, in 1977. Sadly, I have no memory of the town, with my first stop being in Ibarra, 126 km to the south. I found my journal from that trip. There was not much about Tulcán, but I did find this, written in Colombia in my last days before returning to the US (March, 1977): “The brain can efficiently store and retrieve just so many visual images…and to share those images with another is then difficult, indeed. My poor head overflows with images that will remain primarily private…”]

The Death Ride

The 2021 edition of the Death Ride was to have been Sunday, July 18. It was billed as the 4oth Anniversary and the “Death Ride Resurgence.” The 2020 edition was billed the same way but canceled due to the pandemic. This year’s was canceled at the last minute due to encroaching wildfire. Mark, please post a comment here to let us know you’re OK.

Back on the bike

I was able to remove my toe splint without cutting it off, so the swelling is down. Saturday I was able to clip into a pedal – I’ve been riding with one foot clipped in and the other with my heel on the pedal to avoid pressure to the broken toe. I still walk funny, pushing off from my little toe instead of my big toe, but I think I am ready to rejoin the Wednesday Night Bike Ride. This week is a hard and hilly route, so we’ll see.

Or maybe just the kayak

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats…in or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to really matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination, or whether you reach some where else, or whether you never get anywhere at all…” The Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. I guess I’ll hit the water now…