Saturday, February 17, 2007

Musing: Lost In Translation

LostintranslationI am sure that by now all of you have experienced the pros and cons of computer spell checkers -- or “smell” checkers as some folks call them. They are great at finding mistakes if the typed word doesn’t exist, but they don’t find properly spelled words that are wrong in the context in which they are used. Hence, for example, the spell checker -- even on my fabulous Mac -- will not fin this typo. You get my point. As bad as this problem with computer spell checkers is, the problem with computer translation programs is far, far worse. From time to time on The Voyage, I come across examples of where someone has obviously used a computer translation program to render their native language into English with odd, often funny results. So far, I have simply had a grin or two and gone about my business.

The example above struck me as so funny, however, that I decided to start sharing some of them with you in the form of a new “Special” page for things “Lost In Translation.” (You can click to it in the sidebar to the right.) In the process, something occurred to me which is the point of this little Musing: Beyond its hilarity, “and you eat fried Spanish women” is irrelevant. The important, useful words in the translation are loin, cheese, egg, bacon, lettuce and tomato. Based on these, I have a pretty good idea what kind of sandwich it is, and that is what I really want -- need -- to know. So, in a sense, I’ve been informed and amused -- a pretty good deal if you ask me!

In thinking about this, I have reflected on the many times people have asked me how I handle “the language barrier” on The Voyage. After all, English may be “the world’s second language” but it is my only language. So, let me share my strategy for getting by in foreign lands with foreign languages:

1) Learn and use “words.” Forget about learning phrases, tenses, grammar, etc. You will never learn enough to be literate so don’t even try. Making a hash -- which is the best you can hope for -- out of “Can you please tell me where I might be able to get a good seafood meal somewhere nearby?” will get you nowhere and probably confuse, possibly annoy, the person you are asking. Instead, use simple words like “Please. Restaurant. Seafood. Near.” I guarantee the person you are asking will be engaged by your question -- human beings are pre-disposed to be engaged by puzzles -- and they will invariably make enough sense out of your “words” to get the gist what you are saying. In reality, there are probably only 50-100 words you need to know in any given language in order to “get by” or “function” in it. (Maybe one of these days I’ll make a list of them!) Learn and use these words, and forget about trying to learn future imperfect participles or the like.

2) Remember that the other person may speak “English as a second language” only about as well as you speak their language. Apply the rule above in reverse and engage in the puzzle of figuring out what their words are trying to convey. Vocabulary is a multiplicative function, and a little of each between the two of you can vastly expand your mutual understanding. Above all, just because they may speak some English, do NOT expect that they should speak it well and shame, criticize or otherwise be judgmental if they do not.

3) Set your expectations low and your patience level high. You are not going to get exact, perfect results from your verbal interaction so don’t even think about it. The other day, for example, I was in the mood for a steak. I asked the waiter for “Meat. Grilled.” and was served a platter with about four pounds -- this is Argentina, after all -- of mixed grilled meats. I could recognize the pieces of beef, lamb and chicken but I had no idea what the rest of the parts, pieces and various organs were. I said, “Thank you” and proceeded to eat what I could recognize and try small pieces of the rest. I didn’t get my “steak” but I got the “Meat. Grilled.” that I asked for -- and plenty of it. As the Rolling Stones put it, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.” Amen.

4) Smile, laugh, be goofy and even act a little helpless or self-deprecating. Although what Willie Sutton said is true -- that “You can get more money from a bank with a gun and a smile than you can with just a smile” -- don’t underestimate the power of a smile. Human beings are also pre-disposed to feel fondly toward helpless creatures that smile -- It’s how nature keeps us from eating our young -- so use it to your advantage. I know I have written before that my friend Greg does this as well as anybody, but it’s worth repeating. His smile, positive attitude and infectious good humor are so effective at engaging people that it is simply amazing how fast he strikes up a rapport, communicates his meaning and gets positive, helpful responses. How else do you think he gets his picture taken with so many lovely young women in foreign countries! Smile and the world smiles with you.

5) When all else fails, use pictures. I always try to “talk” first, but when this gets me nowhere I pull out my secret weapon: A Visual Translator. I carry one called Kwikpoint -- there are many sizes and styles -- and I swear by it. Basically, it is a laminated page, covered in a multitude of simple, clear, colorful icons on which you can point to what you want. It isn’t as much fun as doing “the language thing” but it has it’s advantages including precision, time and universality. After all, you can’t get “Lost In Translation” when there isn’t any translation.

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