Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Translator


It  could have been from a prequel to Star Trek, the earliest stages of the Universal Translator. It stood about four feet high, slightly askew on its post, and had buttons for selecting a dozen languages. It looked a little like the jukebox selectors in the booths of old diners. The bottom button was labeled “more languages.”
The Translator robot stood next to the reception desk at the local hospital where I went for some routine lab work a few days ago.
Photo from Big World Network
I always wanted to be a translator when I grew up. I came close a couple of times. At the English-language Athens News in Greece, we had to edit stories that were submitted in French or Greek. At that point, I could at least tell the difference (the Greek alphabet has different characters, duh.) At Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a friend asked if I knew enough Greek to help him evaluate a stroke victim, to tell whether his speech was slurred. When I greeted the patient, he immediately said “Ta dontia mou. Pou einai ta dontia mou?” (By that time, my Greek was better.)
“He wants his teeth,” I told the medical student friend. “He asks where his teeth are.” “Is his speech slurred?” Harold asked. “Not at all,” I said, “but it will probably be better when he puts his teeth in.”
At the United Nations building, near the office where I worked, I sat in the galleries and watched the translators up in the glass-fronted booth instantly interpret whatever was being said on the floor in dozens of languages. In my hippie days, I chose the name “Talking Bridge,” again thinking about translating. And in a way, I think all my teaching and writing has been a matter of translating. Certainly I have discovered no new thing either in music or discourse, but sometimes just the way something is expressed can make the connection between the abstract and the useful.
I have made some pretty funny gaffes along the way. On a deadline in Salonica, I thought I was yelling “Hurry! Hurry!” when actually I was shouting “Rape! Rape!” I thought my maid’s name was Askimoula (Little Ugly One) when in fact it was Asimoula (Little Silver One.) I complimented her on her worms (skoulikia) when I meant to say something about her earrings (skoularikia.)
Anyone who has dealt with Google Translate or any of the other Internet translators knows the perils of word-by-word translations, which can be Byzantine at best and even dangerous at worst.
Here’s a recent example from Greek which was poetic but which made sense in the original: “Sometimes only lift his gaze and watched city people who swiftly sinking in darkness. Hasty and smelling nice, tired of crawling, others in small groups discussing. Had a weird atmosphere the city every dusk and asked her to hide and be quiet. Smelled glorious past and decadent nobility. A nostalgic permanently strolled through the narrow streets with the palm trees are swaying to sunburnt and parked outside the time and the wear and tear.”
California hospitals must provide a translator for patients who don’t speak English, and I was talked into translating for an elderly Greek stroke victim in the long-term care wing of the local hospital. My brief career as a translator is described in Caryatids, my book of short stories published by Amazon’s CreateSpace in January.
Obviously the local hospital wouldn’t be needing my services as a translator any more. But I thought about the first thing I had to translate for my little old lady.
“Ask her if she is in pain,” the nurse had instructed me.
Ehete pono pouthena?” I asked. Do you have pain anywhere?
The little lady answered with the Greek “No”, a sharp tip of the head backward and a tongue click (think “tsk”.)

I really doubt that the new mechanical translator robot could handle that one. Why, it didn't even have a head.

1 comment:

Camille Offenbach said...

This has been my year of language fails. Last spring I had an involuntary transfer because I couldn't teach in Mandarin. Since the school is becoming a Chinese immersion school, they needed teachers who were bilingual. I inquired after another job, only to be asked if I could teach art in Spanish. Now I am at two new schools where speaking Spanish and Mandarin would be helpful. I guess I know what my homework is now.