Friday, May 01, 2009

Lost in Translation

Yesterday was a very hot day in NYC. It was so humid I was breathing in almost liquified air. In fact, it was so hot it brought back to mind my 2 month stint as a relief worker in the Amazon jungle. There are still 2 things that stand out vividly about that time, the people I met and the unbearable heat and humidity of that place.

The people are like those you would find anywhere where there's starvation - grateful for any help given. Their gratitude, humility, and genuine friendship are with me still today. I don't need to see video or pictures of that time because each face, each smile and every tear is indelibly recorded in my mind as if it just happened, instead of the 12 years it's been. There are so many wonderful stories I could share with you from that time, but one in particular stands out. It happened just a few hours after my arrival while I was waiting to meet the men I would be interpreting for. I would be sharing interpreting duties with 2 others interpreters (also men) who were coming from Europe. In fact, I was only one of 2 women in a group of 30 men headed for the jungle.

I was a bit nervous as my French and Portuguese were stale and my knowledge of Italian was very rusty having not spoken it since childhood. But this is where I was needed most, not in vaccination tents with children or in a kitchen cooking over a hot stove. Because of this new assignment I arrived before everyone else, in order to help at the airport. Part of my duties was to make sure that the teams of Dr’s. and scientist I was to work with would have an easy walk through customs.

Four hours later, I was still the only woman amongst the 25 staff worker waiting for transportation to base camp. I was trying to be more of an observer than a participant, trying to figure out culture and dynamics so as to gain an understanding of those I would be interpreting for. However, that didn’t last long as a number of the guys, being the usual testosterone loaded European/South American males, were trying to draw me out by asking questions about my personal life. Soon the double entendre and flirting began on their part. You see, in that culture, an unescorted woman, scratch that, an unescorted American woman meant to them that she was both a free spirit and uninhibited. Yes I was both, but I was also not the town whore and very capable of handling myself.

As the conversation continued I was asked what kind of food I preferred, and how I liked it prepared. Being that vegetarianism was an unfamiliar concept to them, I had to explain in a way they would understand. At one question I responded by saying that "I don't like preservatives. I'm not able to use them because I'm allergic, so I do everything naturally and without preservatives".

Suddenly their eyes sparkled with excitement and their subdued smiles broke into very wide eager grins. As they repeatedly began exchanging glances with each other (a few started smacking their lips as if staring at prime ribs), I knew I had said something terribly wrong. I just stood there with a stupid grin on my face, trying to figure out what it was that I had just said. Finally, one of the interpreters whispered in my ear the literal translation of what I'd said:

"I don't like condoms. I'm not able to use them because I'm allergic, so I have to do everything naturally and without condoms".

Needless to say I was mortified. Surrounded by men I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I turned beet red before I even had a chance to cover my face with my hands as I shouted "no, no, no...."  Of course some of the men were so entertained they said nothing waiting to see what I would say next. I still shudder from the memory as I could almost hear their thoughts. Turning to my fellow interpreter I asked that he please explain to them what I really meant to say, to which all responded with laughter at the end. Afterwards I promptly asked what was the word used there for food preservative. It turns out I had used an incorrect vowel the "o" instead of an "a" for the last vowel in "preservativas". Having been made aware of this, I committed the word to memory so I wouldn't have the same experience at restaurants.

Since Michele was a difficult name for South Americans to pronounce in Spanish, thereafter I was referred to as "La Natural" when I wasn't around.  Till this day they still refer to me as such.

Update: Below are some of the funny comments I received. Reposting with permission: 

1. Well, whaddya know... something French that I actually like :-)
Posted by: Harvey at October 03, 2009 04:19 PM 

2. Tres bien, mon bonbon. Je prends une pomme savoureuse à  danser avec votre votre mellon.
Posted by: RSM at October 03, 2009 07:06 PM 

3 C'est la Vie, Cheri. Mais comment-dites vous... Oooo La-La!  
Posted by: Stephen Macklin at October 03, 2009 08:07 PM 

4 ROFTL!  Open mouth extricate slipper. 

Posted by: Laughing Wolf at October 04, 2009 07:08 AM 

google-site-verification: google0ae6c0eabbcf691f.html