Monday, May 14, 2012

Lost In Translation

I took two years of high school Spanish.  With that, I have been able to successfully order beer, find a toilet, and order a variety of different burrito combinations while in Mexico.  Beyond that, I'm pretty much useless.  So when it comes to communicating with Hispanic families in a professional capacity, I need a translator.

Both English speaking staff and students tend to be a little overly sensitive & suspicious when people speak a different language around them.  If people are speaking Spanish and they look and/or laugh in the direction of non-Spanish speakers, it generally sends them into orbit.  

"He was making fun of me!  In Spanish!!!"

"But you don't speak Spanish, how could you possibly know that?"

"Because he was laughing!"

Having said that, in my many stops, I have always had challenges with finding good staff to translate.  The individual I have translating often times winds up having a largely private conversation with the parents while the rest of us sit around wonder what the hell they are talking about.

It's not that I'm worried they are talking and laughing about my huge nose, but rather I use strategic language and wording in the course of my job.  When a staff member and parent have a lengthy back and forth, I'm not sure the message is coming across the way I want it to.  

No one was a worse translator that Juanita Gomez.  I'm not even sure what her title was at the school.  Juanita did a little of everything.  She wiped tables in the lunchroom, made copies, filed library books, and helped special education students keep on task in the classroom.  

Juanita was an old lady with long gray hair.  She was an incredibly hard worker and would do any job anyone asked her to just so long as it didn't interfere with her 15 minutes cigarette breaks.  If a tornado was coming down the block during those 15 minutes, Juanita would have been out there, standing across the street puffing away in her insulated flannel jacket.

I needed her to translate for a fairly run-of-the-mill parent meeting.  The kid had tossed a piece of food across the lunchroom and throw a little tantrum when asked to go down to the office.  Pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page moving forward.

I gave Juanita a run down of what happened, what I needed the parent to understand, etc.  She got it.

The parent arrived and joined us in my office along with the student.

I began, "Mrs. Gomez, please welcome Mrs. Alvarez and thank her for coming in to meet with me."

Juanita started talking in Spanish to the parent.  The somewhat nervous parent said a few words back, but Juanita was doing most of the talking- and lots of it.  She went on and on.  "Holy shit," I thought to myself. "All I asked her to do was say hello!"

Juanita was starting to move into a new level of intensity.  She was turning red in the face, sweating, wagging an aggressive finger at the kid, and her gravelly cigarette charred voice was at a near yell.  The mom's eyes were beginning to well up and then she start moaning, "Ay dios mio!" over and over again.

My head moved back and forth as I tried to make some sense of what the hell was going on and not sure knowing what to do.  Eventually the mom started sobbing hysterically, hopped up, grabbed the kid and her over sized purse, and charged out the door.

"Juanita!  What the hell happened there?!!"

"I told her that her son was a very very bad boy, and if he ever did it again he would be permanently kicked out of the school."

"But Juanita, I didn't tell you to tell her any of those things! I just said to thank her for coming!!!"

With that, Juanita crossed her arms and sat with this, "You didn't have the balls to take care of this" like look on her face.

Now days, I look to Sylvester Stallone for help with this issue.  Seriously.  Whenever someone is going to translate for me, I have them watch this clip first.  Sly models what I need: half sentence-translate-half sentence-translate-talk slow-repeat.  Now why didn't I think to look to Rocky for the answers in the first place? Estúpido.

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