The Unhelpful Interpreter

When I was a little kid, I would ask my parents what they were saying in Filipino, especially if it was something that cracked them up. My parents always handled translation a little like a hot potato; they deal with it quickly enough, but it wasn’t all that pleasant. My dad would always say the English a little louder than necessary; my mama would search a little bit for the word, sometimes giggling.

When I was in my 20s dealing with Spanish and French, I used to give rock solid, $50 translations, instantly; I remember coming up with the word “effigy” for my Spanish teacher, and her being impressed. English was strong with me… at the time.

I can’t do that anymore. Literal translations are always easy, but if something is a little jankily translated or remotely culture specific, Americans start asking irritating questions that bare their ignorance about multilingualism. What do you mean, you can’t “have a cow?” What do you mean, it doesn’t “rain cats and dogs?” What language do you DREAM in?

Anyway, as I said, I can’t do instant spontaneous $50 interpretation anymore. Like my mama, I do a little searching and giggling. Like my dad, my English translation comes out a little louder. I realize now it’s louder because I’m surprised; it’s surprising sometimes to be able to interpret.

Every once in a while, I’ll be in a position where I can help people by interpreting. Usually, I manage to interpret, and fail to help.
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The other day I was sitting at Ping’s Dumpling shop by myself, eating my chicken wonton soup and frightening passersby with my fearsome countenance. A teenage boy walks in with a woman my age, and she asks Grandpa Ping a question that sounds a little like English and a lot like a record of Hitler spun in reverse. What the wah? They were asking for directions to some place, but when they named the destination in English, it sounded like bagpipes.

The proper Seattlite thing to do is to mind my own damn business, but a year in New York taught me that non-Seattlites don’t like that, surprisingly. Weird, right? Anyway, I butted in to rescue Grandpa Ping, who looked as baffled as I was.

The boy looked like he was ready to take a train ride, and the lady looked like she was his aunty. They were dressed like high society Latinos trying to blend in with us lumberjacks. They repeated to me where they wanted to go, but I still didn’t understand it, even though I had put my spoon down to listen to them.

“Which… language do you speak?” I asked them, feeling like a caveman. I didn’t even have a guess. Is there a more civilized way to phrase that question?

The lady smiled and said, “Portuguese.”

Oh. Should have said so earlier. I told the lady in Spanish that she could speak to me in Portuguese, and she said in Portuguese, oh yes, we can understand Spanish. Now, when she spoke, it was clear as a bell. She said, we’re looking for the Quickly Bus Company; he is taking a bus to Vancouver.

I have encountered quite a few Portuguese speakers in my life, a couple from Portugal, and a lot of Brazilians, and I’ve always been able to understand them provided that we had eye contact. It’s a happy bonus of learning Spanish that I can understand Portuguese; Brazilians more than European Portuguese.

The operative word here is learning Spanish…., it was the learning that brought me the Portuguese bonus. Native Spanish speakers often report that they don’t understand a word of Portuguese (unless of course they’ve studied it). The Portuguese speakers I know, however, totally understand Spanish when they hear it, and many can even speak Spanish just by castillofying their Portuguese… and a lot of practice.

Anyway, this lady is speaking to me in Portuguese now, and I can understand everything she’s saying. The only problem is that I’ve never heard of the Quickly Bus Company.

So I turn to Grandpa Ping and say 「他在找叫 “Quickly” 的公車公司,公車站怎麼走。因為男生要坐公車去溫哥華。」

Grandpa Ping thinks about “Quickly” and looks more baffled than before. He’s never heard of the Quickly Bus Company either; he suggests they walk two blocks to King Street Station and ask somebody there.

But he said that all in Chinese. So I turn to the lady and told her in Spanish that none of us knew anything about the Quickly Bus Company, and that she should go to the train station and ask; they could help them there.

They thanked my cheerfully and walked out the door toward the train station. Grandpa Ping went back to busing a table and I resumed my fearsome soup eating. And then I looked down at my phone and it dawned on me that I could have Googled the Quickly Bus Company for them.

I checked; he was actually early, and had over an hour to catch the bus, but the pickup point was up in Belltown. I walked to the train station to see if I could find them, but they were gone by then. Maybe they found their own way.

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When I was a senior at the University of Washington, I spent my last quarter on the UW center in Rome, which was an amazing experience. The UW Rome Center is located right in the Campo dei Fiori. The following story was pasted in from a previous post about my life on the 64 bus.

One time, I was riding the 64 back to my home stay after school, and a couple of old american guys with Hawaiian shirts, safari hats, and sun burned faces got on the bus, and systematically worked their way from the front to the middle of the bus asking everyone individually, “Parlez-vous français?” And of course, no, all the tourists had gotten off at St. Peter’s, so the bus was full of locals, and no, nobody spoke French.

So it’s a crowded bus, and they’ve asked 20 people so far if they speak French. When they get to the midpoint of the bus, a lady answers them in Italian, as if they were crazy, “You gotta be kidding, don’t ask us, ask a foreigner.”

Of course I’m watching the whole time, but I really tend to not step in and help lost Americans when I’m abroad. Especially if they’re being ridiculous. If they ask me directly, yes, I help them, but usually they don’t ask me, because I’m Asian, right? I probably don’t speak English.

Anyway, the lady scans the bus, and sees me, in the back of the bus, watching their conversation, and she points to me, and tells the two Americans to go ask me. They are confused, because, hey, I’m Asian! Why would I speak French! I look at the lady like “Come on, lady!” and she just shrugs.

So they make their way back to me, and ask me “Parlez-vous français?” with a gringo accent so strong, I knew could he couldn’t possibly speak French.

“Yes, I speak French,” I told him in English. “Would you rather speak English?”

“Comment?” the guy asked, not understanding. I repeated myself, and he laughed out loud and shouted to his friend that I spoke English. “Where do we get off for Savorelli?”

It was probably their hotel, but I had never heard of it. I looked over at the lady who had pointed me out, and I said, in a kick-ass Roman accent, “Vogliono sapare dove si deve scendere per Via dei Savorelli.”

The lady, glanced out the window, and said, tell them to get off here. I told them, they thanked me, and got off. The lady shrugged at me, and I shrugged back. The stop they wanted was probably a couple of stops behind us, but the Roman way of giving directions is only telling them the next step. The next step was to get off the bus and to ask someone else.

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