Monday, January 18, 2010

Lost in translation (yet another cliche title ...)

Here’s a funny little story about me not being able to speak Spanish and the chaos that follows when I try to act like I know what I’m talking about.

So Joannah and I were giving a nutrition class to a women’s group at a small community about 20 minutes away from our site. The goal is that, eventually, Peace Corps wants us to convince each family here to build and maintain a small organic garden. At this class, we were trying to sell the group on the benefits of home gardening. I told them that it was much cheaper to grow your own vegetables, that it’s not that difficult, and the produce that you collect should generally be a lot healthier.

One part of my argument was that homegrown vegetables don’t have any preservatives, or chemicals. So I kept saying the word “preservativo” which, I thought, translated to “preservative” in Spanish. I started to get some funny looks from the women, but I stammered on. By the end of the class, I knew that I had messed up something, but I couldn’t pinpoint where I had gone wrong.

Anyway, cutting to the chase here, I later found out that the word “preservativo” in Spanish translates to “condom.” It’s no wonder there was confusion in the crowd that day as I tried to preach the benefits of condom-less organic vegetables.

Joannah has a similar tale of embarrassment and miscommunication. Although, to be fair, whereas my story was a result of not knowing how to speak Spanish, Joannah sort of had reason to believe that what happened to her was the fault of her Spanish teachers back in high school.

You see, when Joannah and I were learning basic Spanish in our respective high schools, we were both taught that the word “bolsa” meant “bag.” One day Jo was helping to administer an English test to the local students and found out that in Ecuador, the translation was slightly different. During the test, Joannah spotted a student constantly reaching for something in his backpack. Calling out the cheater, she asked him, “What do you have in your bolsa? Give me your bolsa.” The whole classroom immediately burst into laughter.

Joannah wasn’t entirely off the mark here. I mean, the word “bolsa” kind of translates to “bag” … well, “sack” would actually be more like it. In English, this “sack,“ it’s a reference to a part of the male body. Hopefully I’m making myself clear here without being too vulgar.

Yes, we mess up the Spanish pretty often, and thankfully, no, not every screw up has to deal with condoms or scrotums, but overall, the language integration is, for both of us, way more of a challenge than we thought it would be. After over six months living in Ecuador, during everyday conversation, we have gotten used to stammering, sounding like idiots, and looks of confusion from those to whom we are speaking.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t entirely get our points across, nor that we aren’t improving every week. It’s just that instead of a our progress being a straight line going up, it’s more like a stock market graph, with peaks and lows, all hopefully moving in a gradually upward direction. There are some days where I feel like I’m almost fluent; I’ll be talking fast without having to constantly translate everything in my head before it comes out of my mouth. Other days will be the complete opposite, where I can’t understand anybody and vice versa.

Jo and I just came back from a weeklong Peace Corps meeting called “Reconnect,” where all of the volunteers met up with the staff and discussed how our first four months on our own had being going. Part of this meeting was a required 15 minute presentation, in Spanish, about our experiences, our communities, and our plans for future projects.

During my talk, I went through this rehearsed part where I was trying to explain how it’s very easy to be frustrated on a daily basis: people giving us higher prices, people cutting in line, etc. Instead of fighting with everyone when difficult situations occur, I was trying to say, it’s better to exercise a little patience. That’s when the Peace Corps language facilitator cut in and explained that you can’t use the word “fight” in Spanish to convey arguing or disagreement. The word in Spanish literally means to get into a physical fight. So here’s a perfect example of me speaking grammatically correct Spanish, and still not being able to get my ideas across.

And sometimes I’m not sure if I’m learning Spanish as much as I’m learning how life goes on down here and how people operate. For example, the other day I was riding in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other people, and a lady said something to me in Spanish. I immediately banged on the window, signaling the driver to stop so this woman could get off. My reaction was totally natural, almost unconscious. Afterwards, I was trying to remember exactly what she had asked me to do, and either I wasn’t paying attention to what she said, or I hadn’t understood the words. But it didn’t even matter; I didn’t miss a beat in what I was asked to do. You get so used to doing certain things that in some situations language isn’t even necessary, it’s just a formality.

I wonder, if everyone down here spoke English, and I had just arrived in country, and I found myself in that same situation, where someone had asked me, “Hey, bang on the window for me,” or something like that, I probably wouldn’t have understood what was being asked. So, for me anyway, I think that knowing how to conjugate verbs or memorizing vocabulary, while important, will only get me so far in terms of actual communication.

And there are always going to be stupid mistakes. A while ago I was talking to a mother with her one year old daughter, and the daughter would cry hysterically every time I looked at her. I tried to say to the baby, “You don’t like me very much,” but it came out as, “I don’t like you very much.” The mom made a face and I immediately realized and corrected my mistake, no harm done. But I just can’t let myself feel too bad. I mean, I make stupid comments in English all the time. Communication will never be perfect in any language; there will always be awkward misunderstandings.

It’s hard to measure improvement on a daily basis, but we can definitely feel that it´s coming along. Slowly but surely, hopefully over the course of the next year and a half, our Spanish skills will be closer to where we want them to be. Either that or one of these days someone’s just going to punch me in the face.


  1. I have a friend who asked for the frozen yogurt without preservatives, and hilarity ensued :) Happens to the best of us.
    Miss you guys!

  2. Hey Rob & Joannah! Adam and I totally hear you on random stumbling, bumbling mumblings! I think being married also makes the progress slow down a little bit more- or at least that is my excuse! Hope life is good where you are at! Sad we didn't get to see you two after Reconnect! We should plan to meet up soon either in your site or ours or somewhere in between! =D

  3. Language courses never keep up with current vernacular.
    I'm sure you guys are doing a superb job.
    It must be harder for you to make these little mistakes, given that you want to project a certain level of authority in trying to convince people to bring some of their daily practices to a new standard. Meanwhile, you're dissing babies and asking kids to hand over their scrota.
    The total immersion in Spanish must be tough. But it's said that real fluency only comes as a result of it.
    Love the blog entries! Hope you are well and happy.