Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lost in Translation

I would like to dedicate this post to Walter.

Some time ago, I wrote a post that introduced a Spanglish dictionary I compiled of the ‘niquismos’ (nicaraguanisms) that found their way into daily conversation over the time I spent in Central America. Being an Anglophone in Madagascar is a double challenge, because you have both the French and Malagasy language barriers. However, similar to life in Nicaragua, ex-pats tend to have a dialect unto themselves. You mix languages and slang and, my personal favourite, just generally butcher proper speech with a horrendous accent, not because you can’t pronounce the sounds, but because you’re just plain lazy. I am sure one of these days I’ll update the dictionary to make it multi-lingual and then you’ll all be really impressed. Rightly so; it’s a pretty neat trick, this language business. Today, however, I want to focus less on vocabulary and more on the advanced translation component.

Let me first get out all the appropriate provisos, caveats, and qualifications. I know first-hand that learning a new language takes guts. I remember talking with a Korean friend who once made the point that she felt that people assumed she was stupid because she was inarticulate in English. This is a serious error that often gets applied to the whole lot of foreigners. It’s easy to mock that which you don’t understand.

It takes a lot of courage to sound stupid so that you can be smart – anyone who knows five languages, like my Korean friend, can hardly be considered a twit. So I would like to preface this post with admission that I am writing this from a place of utmost empathy. Heaven knows I’ve massacred the French language since coming to Madagascar, although if you ask me, the French had theirs comin’. Mark Twain is supposed to have once insisted that “in Paris they simply stared at me when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” Quite.

And long before French, I more than had my way with Spanish. Although I’ve pretty much got that one down pat now, there was a time when I too would make the classic blunder between ser and estar (pfft, amateur..). Now I know when I am and when I am, but to show magnanimous I really am, I will start this off with my shining moment as a hispanohablante. When you point the finger at others, after all, there are three pointing back at you (the thumb really just points awkwardly at hapless passersby).

My friend Noel is the owner of Artesanos, which I can confidently say is one of the best café/bars in Latin America. While living there, I had come into a bit of renown among my friends for my frequent baking. Here’s a good tip too for those of you entertaining the thought of moving to a new country but worried about how to make friends in your new surroundings: nobody, regardless of culture or creed, ever turns down a banana streusal muffin. I was talking with Noel and a few other friends one morning over breakfast at the cafe about how my contract was coming to an end and I wasn’t sure if I’d stay in Nicaragua or go home. Noel, bless his pea-picking heart, told me that if I wanted to stay in Nicaragua, I could come work for him. He was the type of guy that would hire you first and find something for you to do later, so as an afterthought he asked me, in Spanish, what I’d want to do. I replied – tumbling over my words as usual because I just have so much to say and not enough time to say it – that I’d be happy to bake for everyone.

Or so I thought. You see, to bake in Spanish is “horñear,” pronounced “orn-yey-ar.” But that ñ can be tricky and if you don’t pronounce it properly, it comes out awkwardly sounding more like orinar (orr-yee-nar). That, my friends, means “to urinate.” Noel’s response was to look at me with his most serious face and say “lo siento amor, pero aqui todos podemos orinar para nosotros mismos” (Sorry love, but here we can all pee for ourselves). That was the sad end to my career as a Nicaraguan pastry chef.

Many times in Nicaragua, we’d cackle over spelling errors in English documents. One of my favourite restaurants in Managua had a typo at the bottom of the first page of their 20-page menu that said “If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask your walter.” While the poor chele who translated 20 pages of flowery culinary descriptions deserves some whole-hearted respect, it never got old to ask if Walter was available to take our questions about where babies come from and the meaning of life.

In order to highlight just what a global affliction mistranslation is, I give you the “Sunny Golf Guide to Gasy Life.” The other week, I was staying at a hotel in Tamatave and the proprietors had thoughtfully placed a bottle of water, a tea set and the “Inside Procedures” on the desk for me. Usually things like this might provide one or two mistranslation gems, but the whole page was pure gold, so I have selected for you my very favourites:

  • You are asked to not serve some current water than exclusively for the purpose of toilet (I am not sure what they are referring to with “current water” or “the purpose of toilet,” but I for one, am not touching the bottle of Eau Vive they left me).
  • For your dirty linens and ironing, our laundry services stay at your disposition. It is prohibited positively from ironing the clothes in the room, to wash the linens in the sink or tub and to throw some objects there can obstruct them (Utterly and positively).
  • Thank you to respect the sleep and rest of the other. To avoid the nocturnal uproars. (Oh but I do so love a good nocturnal uproar).
  • In order to avoid possible temptation, all values […] can be deposited at Front Desk (You just can’t make this up).
  • The non respect of these Inside Procedures entails the exclusion of the hotel directly.

In light of the positive prohibition on nocturnal uproars and treacherous toilet water currents, I feel that the last point is more of a command than well-wishing, but I can’t quite tell. Some things are just lost in the translation.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Most Terrifying Thing I Ever Did

The most terrifying thing I have ever done was hand small children highly flammable objects, light them ablaze and then send the kiddies out into the dark streets of their already dangerous capital to play.

Now before all my dear friends at UNICEF start howling at me in outrage, remember that a) it was all conducted with a respect for the culturally acceptable celebratory practices; and b) that I did at least make a concerted effort to keep the large kitchen knife used for cutting up candles away from the smallest members of the party.

It’s not always clear what is best (or worst): over-zealous, cautionary parenting born out of a culture that loves their law suits in the west and the lackadaisical, free-for-all in the rest of the world. I am not sure if one is better actually, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, which one I found myself in on Saturday night.

The event started off on the right foot. I had made plans with a friend and about Thursday or Friday of last week, she sent me a text saying that she had a proposal. June 26th is Independence Day here in Madagascar. Since it ain’t no party ‘til you spend a week lighting off firecrackers and tooting party horns into the wee hours, the Saturday night, (the 25th) was just as exciting. In fact, I think it’s the big event, sort of like Christmas Eve – you have all the fun and excitement and anticipation and then Christmas morning involves a lot of quality family time spent in one’s pyjamas.

My friend sent me a message saying her housemate, who runs an orphanage, is going to do the traditional Independence day lantern walk and would we like to come along and help, because they could certainly use some extra adult supervision. Well, who’s going to say no to a bunch of orphans?

Not me.

We decided to go do the lantern walk and push our plans back a few hours. I have volunteered in a few kid’s homes and youth programs as volunteer before this and I even did it for pay in my own wild youth. I worked at a high-adventure camp for kids. We routinely sent kids off a 70 ft zipline. We woke them up in the middle of the night and told them the camp was being invaded by the bad guys from the Matrix and that they had to save it with their flashlights and smelly-felts. We had milk chugging contests and let them wrestle for inner tubes. We devised all sorts of madness and nonsense for crying out loud. Nothing prepared me for this.

Just a taste of the madness (note the awesome, though somewhat unnecessary, snowsuit bottom right)

There are a range of stimulants that can produce team wall-bouncing in a group of 20 children: new faces, dinner time, fun and games… did I mention there were 20 of them? All these factors together colluded to create utter mayhem. In my amazement, as I watched these kids run and skid into each other like roller derby champions, I felt a nice patting sensation on my head. The patting changed to a light massage and before I knew it there were little hands braiding my hair from multiple directions. This is also not so strange in a group of small children.

However, it was a bit strange that it was the 10 and 12 year old boys who ended up being the stylists. But I am not one to judge. And if that is what they want to be when they grow up, then I, Kiki Tegelberg, will happily be their hair model.

As the makeover was winding down, the boys were drawn to bigger and brighter things – literally. I had made the mistake of pulling out my camera and setting off the flash, at which point (photographic evidence to follow), not a single one of them would rest until they had their chance to strike innumerable poses. Luckily I was saved by other lights: a small rustling over in the corner started gaining more and more participants. What was that rustling? It was the unfolding of accordion-style paper lanterns. Now, I am all for this lantern idea and being the silly vazah that I am, I thought they must have little battery-operated flashing LED lights inside.

Hahahahahahahaha no.

Nothing but live ammunition for these precious little ones. The rustling was the lanterns, but the ominous thwack that punctuated the roaring din of 20 children all talking excitedly at once was definitely from the one child (let’s be generous and say she was eight or nine) who was using a sizable kitchen knife to cut candles down to size and then melt off the ends to stick them in the lanterns. Small hands grabbed from all sides, giant paper bubbles bobbed and batted around and a nice layer of melted wax coated the scene.

Is anyone else hyperventilating at this point? Because my breathing was certainly mildly uncomfortable. If not, well, prolong the mayhem and fire for another forty minutes while each and every lantern was lit and then relit and after that factor in the flailing coats and scarves as the children suited up in their “winter” gear for a chilly night walk. It was, after all 20 degrees Celsius – better bundle up!

Finally we assembled the crowd and set off into a completely dark street, save for the other bobbing paper lanterns of hundreds of other children. I know this is rather anticlimactic, but it all went swimmingly. Maybe it’s because children aren’t pampered here with functional electrical grids that provide a steady supply of light and power and are sensitized to the fact that that flamey thing will hurt like the dickens if you touch it. Maybe we were drenched in divine providence. Probably a bit of both.

I was not quite sure what to expect: how far were we walking? (Please not far) What happens if a candle burns out? (catastrophe) What was the end point? (we’re still not sure). Out in the dark street, I felt a bit of trepidation. It was 20 of them and about 8 of us adults. Sure, good odds if you’re in Canada where people can afford leashes for their children. We had no such leashes. We didn’t even have a street lamp. But I didn’t need to worry about the dark. We quickly joined one of the main roads through the village and there we joined the throng of bobbing lanterns held by other children and their accompanying adults. It was a bit touch and go to keep track of the kids when in that lighting, and since I really didn’t know any of them, they all sort of looked the same as the other 700 running around, but somehow we managed.

The final destination was mercifully only a few blocks, where we proceeded to promptly turn around and head home (my friend who organized this wasn’t completely mad). I can remember as a child going out trick-or-treating and felt like we conquered everything between the Tsawwassen ferry terminals and the North Shore, but I am sure it was a similar situation. We were lucky if we made it to the end of the block with out getting a bunchy wedgie from our costume and needed to be carried home out of exhaustion (or perhaps, my Dad was lucky if we made it any further). I wasn’t upset when it was time to round them up. It’s easier to breathe slowly and enjoy the bobbing, brightly coloured lights when you know that the direction is home.