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.

A funny thing happened on the way to the

clinic. The main road there is torn up and there was a Detour sign for bikes. I followed the sign, which led me onto a bike path. There were no further signs to direct me back to the road I needed to be on. I eventually found my way there. With the temperature 88 degrees F (31 C) and dewpoint 73 degrees (23 C) I was pretty sticky on arrival.

To avoid the detour, I took the scenic route home. What is normally a 15 mile round trip ended up as 30 miles. Along the way, I didn’t think I was in Kansas anymore.

A suburban retention pond in Wisconsin…bears would be a stretch; but alligators?!?

https://ytcropper.com/cropped/1N5efa2b6ec33f4

On the way home I stopped to check the cherries on the tree by the middle school. I hoped to pick another pound or three. The tree is dead. Now I know we’re not in Kansas.

I saw someone in a t-shirt that said “achiever” on the front. I wondered if that were a true statement, or aspirational. I wondered about being required to wear shirts that label us, maybe even honestly, or maybe with our family’s judgments, and what they would say: “Underachiever”; “I coulda been somebody”; “Never lived up to my potential”; “I told you you should have gone to med school, but no – you wanted to be a plumber”; “I lie – but mostly to myself”; “My bike deserves better”; “Too much money and not enough sense”. The last two are for people riding bikes that are faster than they are. Your comments/additions are welcome.

Detours were the theme of the week. On our continuing “Wednesday Night’s Greatest Hits” tour, we did the “Mt Horeb South” ride. Screaming downhill at 40+mph we came upon a “Road Closed 1000 Feet” sign, then a “Road Closed 500 Feet” sign. The road ended (with an escape route to the right) in a pile of sand (that we could have turned into a ramp to jump the closed section but I couldn’t talk anyone into doing it while I took pictures). The creek is tiny but the trench was pretty deep and a lot wider than the creek, with steep and muddy banks; not to mention lots of heavy equipment and a crew working. The once and future bridge was nowhere in sight. Some “Road Closed” signs are only suggestions. Rivers can be forded or maybe have something to cross on. We’ve had highway crews welcome us to cross a partly-finished bridge when we asked nicely. This was clearly the end of the route. And of course there was no cell phone service and our map had an inset covering the spot where we were. There was only one way to turn so it was an easy choice. Then it was just a matter of making our way back north and east by any means necessary. This was not the Royal We. I rode with two other people for the first time in a few months. We didn’t share air. or beer.

E-bike commercial

Early in our ride, I saw a car and a bike approaching from the rear. Both were clearly going to overtake us – three men in bike clothes on road bikes, going about 20 mph. The bike came closer and closer. As she pulled around us on the left, she was sitting bolt upright, wearing pedal pushers, and rang her bell, passing us effortlessly. I had to look for the battery. Indeed, it was an e-bike.

I’m not sure which would have looked funnier – three guys close to 70 in bike clothes, or three guys closer to 20 being passed by a middle-aged woman sitting upright on a step-thru frame and passing without breaking a sweat on a 90 degree day. I wanted video. One of my friends thought it would be better were she passing Tour de France riders climbing L’Alpe d’Huez. At any rate, at least one version would make a great commercial.

This being July 4, I have to say something. I can’t think of this holiday without re-posting a history lesson:

While the myths we’ve been raised on are “Give me liberty or give me death”, “No taxation without representation”, and “Don’t tread on me”, the reality is a bit more complicated. Genocide against the current inhabitants was already well under way. Imperialism was a central founding principle. While the term “manifest destiny” had not yet been coined, the US was already expanding, and by the time independence was recognized by England in 1783, the US had claimed land to the Mississippi River and beyond. We had already brought people to work as slaves on our plantations. We enshrined in our constitution that a slave was equal to 3/5 of a person, not to acknowledge that they were more than half human and allow them to vote, but in order to increase the representation of the slave states in the House of Representatives and increase their share of taxes. Were three of every five enslaved people counted, or 3/5 of each person enslaved? At least they were acknowledged as “Persons” as well as property.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

US Constitution: Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3.

Welcome to the future!

I spent much of my life learning about a future that is already here.

It started with 1984. When Richard Nixon said (in 1977), “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal”, we were well on our way.

When Ronald Reagan (in the early-mid 1980s) illegally sold missiles to an enemy and used the proceeds to fund a mercenary army to overthrow the government of another country (The Iran-Contra Affair), we took another giant step. Though the law (the Boland Amendment) explicitly forbade these actions, by the Nixon Doctrine they were not illegal. When GW Bush stood before a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” eight years before the end of US combat operations in Iraq (and after only 3% of US casualties), 1984 had clearly arrived.

Image from The Boston Globe

In the Trump Administration, there are daily examples, too numerous to mention even those of the past weekend.

Would Orwell believe it if we told him we actually pay for surveillance cameras and voluntarily share our video feed with the police? That we install devices in our homes so a major corporation can listen to us and sell us stuff?

Prince told us he was going to “party like it’s 1999”. The turn of a millennium seemed like a big deal. It was feared that computers the world over would crash. The power grid would fail. Banks would fail. Programmers worked overtime to patch the millennium bug. The millennium came and went.

Stanley Kubrick taught us about computers that think for themselves. That was going to happen in 2001, with the HAL-9000.

I asked Siri to open the pod bay doors. She replied tersely, “That’s not my department.” When I asked the next day and said please, she said, “Oh, not again.” This time she sounded exasperated. Someone ask Alexa and let me know in the comments how she replies.

The Firesign Theatre took us to The Future Fair in 1971 – “A fair for all and no fair to anybody!”https://ytcropper.com/cropped/lm5ecd8f03aa906. In this future, Artificial Intelligence-equipped computers could address you by name. https://ytcropper.com/cropped/lm5ecd92ba170fe. We are also introduced to hacking. Ask Siri or Alexa, “Why does the porridge bird lay his egg in the air?” I know what Siri says. Tell me what Alexa says.

Fairgoers are asked what they think about the future. One says, “The future’s not here yet.” Well, now it is.

Unclear on the concept

My local paper quoted a salon owner as saying “It is not a nonessential business. I don’t know why they call it that.” Let’s see…a potential consequence of losing access to food is death. A potential consequence of losing access to a hair salon is…grey roots? long hair? I can buy my groceries without coming into physical contact with the grocer. How do you do that to get your hair dyed or cut? Spray paint? A pole saw? I think I see a difference here.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the “Safer at Home” order and allowed businesses to reopen without restriction, they did it via videoconference. No face-to-face testimony was accepted.

O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!

You’ve seen Vermont Church on this site before. Here’s where it used to be.
Sandhill cranes look more normal here than in a hospital parking lot as in a recent post.
This is called “The Driftless Area”. While glaciers scoured much of Wisconsin, they missed this region. Ridges and valleys make for a lot of up and down riding.
Ridgetops bring panoramas like this.

Great Plains

Internet service is completely down here in the Pierre Indian Education Center. I’m writing this post in “Notes” in hopes that service will come back on.

A last look at the Badlands. The color of the soil suddenly changed here.

After 96 degrees yesterday (Saturday), it is 66 and drizzly today.

We have a day off to recuperate in Pierre. We spent the morning in a coffee shop downtown, eating breakfast and watching the World Cup final, won by France over Croatia, 4-2.

Anders, one of our mechanics, was approached by a couple he knows from Northfield, MN. One of them thought they had found the coffee shop frequented by locals and was impressed by the cosmopolitan nature of the local crowd – watching soccer and speaking with British accents. We disabused her of that notion.

The Pierre Indian Education Center (formerly Pierre Indian School) is not unlike the “Custer Memorial Indian School” satirized by the Firesign Theatre (in “Temporarily Humboldt County”) and linked in my July 4 post.

According to a local historian quoted in the local paper, the school was founded in the 1880s as part of Pierre’s bid to become the state capital. They wanted to show that their Indians were “civilized” (just like Soaring Eagle AKA Eddie in the Firesign piece).

We will spend the next few days continuing across South Dakota, entering Minnesota on Thursday. We will end the week in Northfield, home of “Defeat of Jesse James Days”. Northfield was once home to a major bank. Jesse James and his gang decided to rob it. The locals responded quickly and shot it out with the gang. 

The story was memorialized in films including “The Long Riders” and “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid”. While Jesse James has been canonized as a latter-day Robin Hood, he was actually a Confederate sympathizer who robbed and killed northerners to avenge the south’s loss in the war.

And so we begin a week headed more or less easterly. Less north and south wandering. The road flattens considerably.