Family story: my dad hired a Mexican named Pablo in 1978 who only spoke Spanish. My dad would tell him to do something — in English. He didn’t understand, of course, so my dad would repeat what he had said, but louder. Finally, mom pulled my dad aside and explained that volume didn’t increase understanding of language barriers.
I used to think that story was funny, but now I’m not so sure.
This afternoon I was on the receiving end of what Pablo must have felt.
I flagged down a cab, got in, and told him Las Palmas. When he started speaking, I found it difficult to interrupt to let him know I didn’t speak Spanish. He was talking rapidly, confident that I understood.
I put my hand up and told him no hablo español and he looked at me with the oddest expression. He smiled then slowed the cab and started speaking in a much louder voice as he repeated his message. His facial expression implied this time I would understand.
When he stopped talking, I smiled apologetically. Lo siento, no hablo español. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.
He couldn’t seem to grasp the idea.
He spoke two short sentences, with pauses between each one. He punched the air with his forefinger, as if to emphasize he had asked something simple.
By this time I felt uncomfortable. When I shook my head, he repeated the sentences and looked at me, expecting an answer.
This time I said Español? No hablo… NADA.”
He spoke again, very slowly.
I don’t usually use my translation app in a cab because the reception isn’t good, plus taxi windows are always rolled down (it’s warm here) and the wind creates background noise that prevents the app from properly translating. Also — it’s cumbersome for a conversation. It’s best used as a tool for translating on my own.
But since it was clear he needed a response, I pulled out my phone, turned on Data Roaming and opened Google Translate. I spoke into it: “Could you repeat what you just said, but slowly?”
I let him listen to the Spanish (it had understood me) and then he seemed confused. So I clicked the Spanish button and motioned for him to talk.
He spoke at a rapid clip for upwards of a minute, and I thought — geeeeez, this is never going to work. I knew the app couldn’t translate his long and rapid speech.
But the app tried… and it stores conversations. I’m copying in one section of what was translated:
“When I speak to you, and then the Lord say to me what I am, the car, and you didn’t understand me, and it hurt my feelings…” (remainder of the translation makes no sense.) I doubt he actually said “the Lord” but that’s what the app translated.
I looked at him, and though he was driving he kept looking back at me, waiting for a response. He believed I had understood everything he had said.
I felt rather stunned, and then my brain split in two:
One Half: Does this man really think I’ve intentionally hurt his feelings? How do I find the words to help him understand nothing negative was intended? How do I explain … we simply speak different languages?
The Other Half: It doesn’t matter whether I find the words or not, this app will never be able to keep up with my explanation, nor translate in the cab, nor keep up with his rapid speech…
I was silent.
He waited for a response…
It was soooo awkward.
Finally, I repeated — lo siento — I’m sorry — lo siento … then I put the phone back in my pocket, sat back, and looked out the window. I didn’t know what else to do.
We didn’t speak another word.
When we arrived at Las Palmas, the meter showed I owed him 12,900 pesos. I gave him a 20,000 peso note. He flipped through a huge wad of cash, pulled out a peso and gave it to me. I stuck it in the front pocket of my pants, got out and he drove away.
That happened this afternoon. A little while ago, I arrived home and emptied my pockets. Among my keys and chapstick, I discovered that he had given me a 10,000 peso note.
I remember distinctly that he paused as he was choosing which note to give me, but of course I didn’t give it any thought at the time.
He gave me much more change than he owed me. On purpose.
And that’s something else I don’t understand.