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Mar 1, 2006, 5:03 PM

Post #1 of 7 (9283 views)


Translating for friends (long)

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I have been thinking on this subject for a few weeks, I hope that estimado Sr Quevedo finds it appropriate for this forum. I'm writing this in english as it would be beyond my abilities in spanish, there are subtleties involved that I can only express in english. I want to be clear that I am not complaining but would like to read some discussion from others on how they have handled this situation and how they see it.

Here's the thing: I am currently traveling with 3 other people (one my significant other and the other 2 good friends) in areas where little english is spoken. We've been on the road for over 3 weeks mostly in Guatemala. My spanish is not good, not pretty and not correct. It is functional and I improve daily but I am fairly sure I sound like an uneducated hick to a fluent spanish speaker despite the wonderful compliments I get from polite locals.

I can communicate though on almost any subject and I can read the newspapers and such. As is normal, I understand a lot more than I can speak because while I understand the correct usage I don't usually remember to use it when speaking. I have good days and bad days, sometimes I amaze myself by expounding on a great many subjects with little problems and understanding multiple casual conversations going on around me. Other days, everything is a struggle.

My friends speak from very little to no spanish at all. Therein lie all the problems. I've identified several that I'd love some discussion about.

#1 It is hard to tell what they understand and what they don't. If I translate everything they can get insulted and act as though I should know they understood that. That's OK, I'm learning to look for some kind of comprehension before translating. They also can get irritated if I translate 5 sentences into one phrase. It's difficult to keep up with listening and translating without cutting out the unnecessary and just translating the jist of what was said. Plus, I forget sometimes what was said in the beginning as I have to wait until the other person stops speaking to start translating.

If I jump in and translate for them without being asked, they feel I am being condescending but if I don't they often make some incredible wrong guesses on what was said. The classic is in a restaurant where one ordered caldo de something and then was irritated that they got soup. I had not quizzed them if they understood what they were ordering and they had quite clearly ordered on their own without wanting to ask me what it was. More importantly they will often confuse derecho and derecha and of course sometimes derecho is derecha so allowing them to get directions on their own is not usually successful. They want to do it though so lately I've been staying back and letting the one who has a little spanish to ask for directions. It hasn't worked out well yet, if fact there have been some monumental screw ups. I keep telling myself it is better to let the screw ups happen than to interject myself as if I were checking up on them (shoot, not as if, I would be checking as they get it wrong so often).

#2 It's not just a language, it's a culture! I am trying to get across that many times when I ask a question for them I don't really get an answer. The answer may be vague, it may be fairly unrelated to what I asked, it may be a lot of polite suggestions and no real answer, it may be that in my opinion they don't know but are being polite. What happens is that I get a look like I didn't ask the question right or a suggestion that I really drill the person for an answer. This happens alot when asking about the condition of roads and routes in the countryside. I keep telling them that probably a lot of these people don't know as they haven't been more than 10km from their house in their lives. It's a hard concept to get across. I don't want to drill them for more answers, they've told me what they can. Irritation results from my friends in these situations and I start feeling put upon about it. I need to find a way to do this without bad feelings.

I have explained that there are cultural differences in how questions are answered, that answers are not always as clear cut as they are in english but still, I often get the feeling that my friends are irritated with me because of the answers I give them. I get mad that they are irritated with me, I feel stuck in the middle. Also, I start feeling that they think I just don't know how to ask the question right. That could be true in some instances but truthfully it isn't what is happening most of the time. If I don't know a word I can describe it and get the word, while my vocabulary has huge gaps in it I know how to explain what I want until I get the word. The problem is that they don't like the answer and I am not responsible for that.

#3 When they try to speak spanish I work very hard at not interfering. Sometimes though, they mangle the word so bad and the look of utter incomprehension is so strong on the listening person's face that I do repeat what they tried to say but correctly. This almost always gets me a nasty look from my friends. I try not to do it but when it is clear that they are not being understood, what do I do?

These are the main points I'm pondering. Again I want to say I'm not complaining. I love these people dearly and just want to be better at the role I have. I also know that this is something I will be dealing with often. Not everyone intends to spend great amounts of time in a spanish speaking country thus they have no chance or need to learn the language. I do not want this to become a rant against those who don't speak spanish. I want some ideas on how others have dealt with this, how they have worked it out for themselves and their friends.

Jonna - Mérida, Yucatán


Mar 1, 2006, 5:41 PM

Post #2 of 7 (9278 views)


Re: [sfmacaws] Getting along with friends you love

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Not directly? Print your post and then get it "lost" so they find and read it. Then talk.

In Spanish we have a saying, Más vale una colorada que cien descoloridas, meaning that it is better to be assertive, to look at the problem in the eye, say what you think and try to solve the situation once and for all, than suffering countless "polite", uncomfortable hours instead. Three weeks is a lot of time, and more to come.

Buena suerte y buen viaje,



Mar 1, 2006, 7:40 PM

Post #3 of 7 (9271 views)


Re: [quevedo] Getting along with friends you love

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Well, of course you are right and I have initiated several conversations about specific incidents. We've kept the air clear and the friendship OK. It's just that I don't think this is a unique problem just for this trip or just for me. Perhaps it is, perhaps it has not been a problem for anyone else. That's what I'd like to find out, how have others dealt with it. Are there tips or things to do or say that will make it easier.

This trip is almost over, we have another week. It's the future trips with other friends that are on my mind. I have talked with one other friend about this. She is extremely fluent in spanish and has had some of the same problems and she struggles with it daily. I had hoped that there would be some discussion and I would learn some new ways to make it easier.

Jonna - Mérida, Yucatán

Ron Pickering W3FJW

Mar 1, 2006, 7:53 PM

Post #4 of 7 (9267 views)


Re: [sfmacaws] Getting along with friends you love

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Doesn't sound like good friends to me. Why not just tell them to ask if they have a problem and need some help or advice. Put the straw on their backs and let them carry the load.
Getting older and still not down here.


Mar 1, 2006, 8:40 PM

Post #5 of 7 (9262 views)


Re: [Ron Pickering W3FJW] Getting along with friends you love

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I want to say that I have been on the other side of this issue as well. I've often been with people who are much more fluent than I am and I have not gotten all of a conversation and had to ask or I've had them start translating when I am getting it and felt that hint of irritation.

Mainly I am in awe of some of my friends who seem to handle it so well. Esperanza comes to mind. She is excellent at walking this line and I hope she sees this and gives her views.

It's not that these are not good friends, if it sounds like that then I have not done a good job of explaining. Shoot! One of them is my lover of 14 years! It's that I find this a difficult line to walk, there are a lot more nuances to it than I went into here. There are ways of saying things that just don't exist in the other language and there are direct translations that don't make any sense or that don't have the same meaning. It's given me an enormous respect for professional translators, what a difficult job!

In addition, there are many small decisions to be made constantly about whether or not to translate, whether or not to simply add on to what they have said, whether or not to add some explanation... it's complicated.

Jonna - Mérida, Yucatán


Mar 2, 2006, 7:08 AM

Post #6 of 7 (9253 views)


Re: [sfmacaws] Getting along with friends you love

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I am fascinated by this thread -- I've been having the same problem. I have a friend who knows little Spanish but thinks she knows more than she does. My Spanish is similar to yours (fair but not fluent) but it is certainly better than hers. I've recently noticed that she gets irritated when I do the same as you: translate when she feels it isn't necessary or correct her Spanish (she confuses "tianguis" with "tienda"). I've decided to just let her "sink or swim."


Mar 2, 2006, 9:03 AM

Post #7 of 7 (9248 views)


Re: [sfmacaws] Translating for friends (long)

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This is indeed an interesting thread, and an interesting proposition as well. Jonna, thanks for your vote of confidence.

What I work toward is letting go of any need I might have for my friends' Spanish to be correct. I try to keep very present in my mind the process that all of us go through as we learn the language. I believe that the struggle to communicate is what keeps us learning and in fact helps us learn. Learning Spanish or any second language is a humbling experience: as articulate English-speakers, we have a profound desire to be equally articulate in Spanish.

In those moments when it seems that a friend is floundering in a conversation, I've learned to bite my tongue and not jump in unless my friend asks that I tell him/her the word he/she is searching for. Much of the time I succeed, but some of the time my control issues get in the way and I intervene prematurely. If I always act as a crutch to ease someone else's struggle, communication is more efficient but my intervention slows down the learning process for my friend and sets up a dependency relationship that in the end is unhealthy for everyone involved.

The question I have to ask myself over and over is this: what am I doing if I'm jumping into a conversation? Am I facilitating communication, or am I trying to control a situation? Am I really helping a friend, or am I trying to show off with my superior language skills? Sometimes it's one thing, sometimes the other. The truth is, I know me well enough to know what it is that I'm doing. Most of the time I just need to step back and let my friend learn. When the chips are down, communication happens without me and my friend comes grinning with pride to brag about his/her success. That's worth far more than any of my intervention.

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