Sunday 27 January 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Agitated)

Summer 1997. I had been at Tricontinental Magazine for a couple of months as the official translator and interpreter or as the cleaner used to call me as 'el tradultol'. My daily tasks included overseeing the translation of the different contributions sent by the magazine's columnists into Spanish and work alongside an American woman called Karen and resident in the island for many years on the translation from Spanish to English. This proved to be more difficult obviously.
That day we were expecting a delegation from South Africa. I was fascinated and enthralled at being able to meet someone from a country I had heard so much about but knew so little about, too. Mandela's release from prison a few years before had taken over the only two television channels we had in Cuba at the time and the image I had of him was that of someone who had withstood a lot of pain and distress in order to make his country a better place. I was looking forward to meeting this party from the African nation.
At around 11am the South Africans turned up and the chairman of OSPAAAL, the NGO that produced Tricontinental Magazine, came to greet them. I was there by his side and I noticed a sigh of relief from the lady in charge of the group when she noticed that both of us were black. However that small comfort was to change in no time.
They were invited in and led upstairs to one of the meeting rooms. Once inside, we all sat down and started discussing ideas, plans, projects. I was feeling nervous and restless. The reason? I could not understand a word of what the party from the African nation was saying.
I had been to university, performed in an improvisational theatre outfit in English, done free-lance translation and interpreting a for a couple of years, taught at a language school, and yet nothing prepared me for the shame that overcame me in that small room. I was mumbling, stammering (quite badly) and on two occasions had to be helped out by one of the other OSPAAAL's members. The woman in charge of the delegation, who, a few minutes before had greeted me so warmly, was throwing icy stares in my direction now. How to explain to her that the English I had learnt in uni was from the USA? How to put that to her in a way that she could understand that I was not pretending not to comprehend what she was saying, that I just COULD NOT GET IT?
And then, the bomb.
She used the phrase 'PC culture' and I, like a striker who just carries on dribbling the ball he has just been passed without stopping, took it in my stride and tried to put it in the back of the net; I spat the words out:"La cultura de la computadora personal". I should have realised that something was wrong. Even the rest of the South African delegation, men and women, who could not understand one word of Spanish could see that my gaffe had been too big. It was the same colleague from before who interceded for me and helped clear the situation once again.
Once outside the South African woman heading the party reprimanded me, unfairly, for not understanding her. I tried to explain to her in the best way I could that it was nothing to do with her but with the type of English I was used to. It did not help that at the time I still had a strong northeast American accent, mainly from Boston, where many of my post-graduate teachers hailed from. In the end she calmed down a bit and realised that it was not my fault.
It was only years later and whilst living in the UK that I came across the same expression, but by then I was ready and was able to translate it properly or give it my own variation: 'PC-culture'="Actitud politica correcta". If only that lady had been there.
Copyright 2007


  1. ok. that made me laugh. it reminds me of a discussion that took place in a spanish class i took this summer. the teacher (who's also cuban and has been living here for years) was making reference to some of the expressions used in america and how it took her a long time to understand that they weren't to be taken literally.

    the mistakes in translation can be quite comical to those who get it, but i can imagine the confusion and frustration to someone who is sincerely confused about what's being said.

  2. Thanks, fly, I turned a very healthy shade of red in the meeting which given my black complexion must have startled those present there.

    Thansk for your comments.

    Greetings from London.



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