Sunday 23 March 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Grave)

Havana, Cuba, September 1997. OSPAAAL and the Tricontinental Magazine, for which I work, have organised an event called 'Che's Legacy in the Threshold of the 21st Century' (or so I think it is called). As the official translator and interpreter of the organisation my main job is to liaise with the various delegates to the convention and talk about the work the magazine and the OSPAAAL do. Although I have long stopped being so naïve and gullible regarding the political and economic reality of mid 90s Cuba, I undertake my tasks with the professionalism required of a polyglot who has to communicate in English, French, German and Spanish with people from Austria, France, the UK, the US, Canada and various islands in the Caribbean, mainly French-speaking.

The main event is held at the the Journalists' Centre on the corner of 23rd Avenue and O St. I am familiar with the building having attended many painting and photo exhibitions in the foyer before. It is already 10am and the launch is about to take place. The people from ESTI (Empresa de Servicios de Traducción e Interpretación) are in their places and ready to go. I feel slightly jealous. There was a time when I wanted to belong to ESTI. But life sent me to a language school just after graduation and there I stayed for almost two years after which I became a free-lance interpreter, translator and Spanish teacher.
The chairman of OSPAAAL comes over to say hello. He is a likeable man, ex-consul of the Cuban embassy in Turkey and someone I shared my anecdotes about eating kebabs in the UK with. He found them amusing because that used to be one of his favourite foods when he lived in that eastern European nation.
All of a sudden the lights dim and the first speaker comes on stage. It's Aleida Guevara, one of Che's daughters. She talks about how nice it is for everyone to gather under the same room together to honour his father's memory, how he would have loved to see this dream come true, people from many countries uniting against the mighty Yankee imperialism. After her a succession of speakers come and go. Lunchtime arrives. We are asked to cross the road and make our way to the restaurant on the opposite corner downstairs (the name escapes me now). Together with the throng of delegates, speakers and interpreters I plod along. Out of the blue I feel a hand pulling on my arm. I turn around and find the chairman of OSPAAAL standing right in front of me flanked by Aleida Guevara on one side and the Turkish consul on the other. The chairman is grinning.
- This is the man to help you out, Aleida, he speaks many languages!
- Oh, thanks, well, I am Aleida Guevara...
The conversation starts and I, sneakily, check my watch. Hmmm... I still have time to have lunch, probably forty minutes or so. The consul can't speak English very well, so we resort to German, whereas Aleida can speak neither German nor English. The crowd thins out until we are the only ones in the building.
We make our way upstairs, talking all the time. The consul turns out to be a great talker and Aleida relates to him many anecdotes to do with her almost fatherless upbringing.
Twenty minutes elapse.
Upstairs both the consul and Aleida are interested in a painting exhibition that has been up for a long time now and which I have seen a couple of times. The conversation continues. I keep checking my watch. I have possibly five minutes left maximum to catch some food.
Finally the consul shakes my hand and Aleida's and says goodbye. He thanks me profusely for being so helpful. Aleida turns to me and looking at one of my ears exclaims:
- You know what? My father used to say that men should not wear earrings. He was dead against men who wore any type of jewellery, except for watches.
And with that she leaves.
Note: One of my work colleagues, the editor-in-chief's PA, saved me some lunch, which needless to say was lavish as befitted an event organised to acknowledge Che's legacy. So there was a happy ending, at least for my poor stomach.


  1. Nice story Cuban.
    I remember some similar experience 30 years ago with one Cuban minister and a couple of quite high Russian diplomats. There was a Russian guy translating from Spanish to Russian and me trying to translate from Russian to Spanish. I was really bad, but it was not only my fault. Someone said I could translate because I spoke Russian pretty well, and I believed it.
    We, however, were able to grab something to eat while the other worked, but I can imagine your pain.
    Interestingly, translators usually got a different view of leaders than most people see on TV.
    Al Godar

  2. You're right, Al, her comment on my earring (which had, amazingly!, not affected my capacity to translate most of what was being said) would have been brushed aside had it not been for the fact that she DID NOT say the magic word: Thanks. A couple of days later there was a similar situation when we all had to go to La Cabaña fortress for an evening event and all interpreters from ESTI had decamped. I was the only one there capable of doing simultaneous translation (for which I was not trained in uni, mind) and so had to stay behind, even though my pregnant wife was at home. She had recently arrived from the UK and was staying in my house.

    The conference got under way and there were loads of questions from the floor. I remember at one point that there was a group of young Austrian students who said that they could not understand English very well and would I mind summing up the comments made by the panel in German, too? Of course I said yes, but the same request was made by a couple of delegates from a French-speaking country (I can't remember whether they were from Martinique, Haiti or Dominique) and again I had to comply. What came then was funny, just not hahaha, but weird. I had to my left, an army general (who, by the way, was the only who really helped me having found himself in a situation similar to yours, Al), Aleida (again!) and an economist. My knowlegde of German and French did not extend to economic lingo and therefore there were whole chunks of the conference I was unable to translate. In the end I managed to scrape through and people were pleased with my labour.

    When the conference wrapped up, the army general (late army general, really, as he died a few years ago) came up to me and thanked me for my services. The economist did the same because he realised that I had risen up to the challenge even though I lacked the nous required for this situation. Aleida walked off again without saying the magic word: Thanks.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  3. I have always disliked her but this goes beyond being an opportunist.

    This woman is so disgusting that I have no words for her.

    I think that in this case, Fidel is much more intelligent. He know how to please the listeners and that's why he has been able to manipulate people for so long. My mother translated for him and he was extremely (I repeat extremely) elegant, polite and, when nobody noticed her, he talked to her and made her feel good. And she was just "the translator", you know what I mean.

    When someone is like Aleida, it's better for us because the evil or stupidity shows, but when someone is like him, it's more complicated to discern a personality.

    I don't like neither of them, of course, but I have to accept he is pretty clever.

  4. Thanks, liset, years later, here in the UK, someone from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign asked me to come to an event because Aleida was going to be part of it and I said no. Once bitten, twice shy.
    Greetings from London.



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