Lost in Translation

It’s a lucky thing my translation class at the University of Buenos Aires runs four hours in its single weekly session. It’s the kind of class in which verbal accuracy and detail is taken as seriously as fütbol—and we’re talking in a city where even the rehashing of a match between archrival teams Boca Juniors and River Plate can end in blows.

Granted, no one lands in the hospital after even the most impassioned discussions of the relative merits of indicative perfect and indicative pluperfect verb tenses. But linguistic travails do complicate cultural exchanges: when we (try to) communicate there’s a real sense of rift here, like someone’s jammed the telephone line and all that’s coming out is white noise.

Today the working text is Sylvia Path’s “The Dreamers.” We’re almost out of the woods (having narrowly missed a fierce spat over adjective-noun order), the opening strains of the second stanza in sight, before we’re sidelined by a single dastardly phrase: “French window.” The professor is convinced that there is no such thing—in Argentina—and that simply to put down the literal translation of the phrase would make about as much sense as “Brazilian window” or “Czechoslovakian window” would in English. My Argentine classmates just want to know if we started saying “freedom window” after our spat with the French over the war in Iraq.

Translating poetry—managing a million sliding scales at once: sound and sense, denotation and connotation, visuality and aurality—is one thing. Communicating effectively—sensibly, accurately, and (hopefully) with grace—is another. The first is, at my current level of fluency, a Platonic ideal; the second, the oft-cited and ostensible goal of studying a foreign language abroad.

But the more I study, and the more easily the subjunctive pluperfect comes to me in conversation, the more I am convinced that some things just don’t translate. Exhibit A: finding an adequate Spanish counterpart for the word “jolly” (the closest we got was “bárbaro” – like “awesome,” but less painfully Californian surfer dude). Exhibit B: explaining the idiom, “to gird up one’s loins.” (My professor’s attempt: “Before battle, you secure everything here”—pats bottom—“so nothing falls out.”)

Translation problems, moreover, are not merely confined to stuffy classrooms; a week into my stay I found myself saddled with a large one rather closer to home—that is, with the woman living in the room next to mine. Grandma is the octogenarian mother of the Argentine woman who houses and feeds me during the semester. Her middle toe was sawn off a few weeks ago, and while she recuperates she’s staying with us. In two months of living two meters apart, we have never introduced ourselves. I am only known to her as “Psssst! Psssst!”

Our early attempts at communication were dazzlingly incompetent, mainly due to my inability to understand elderly-person Spanish. At one of our first family dinners together, she adjusted her shawl, turned, smiled blithely at me, and said:


“¿Cómo?” I said.

After my listening skills had improved a bit, we switched roles, thanks to the slight deafness in her left ear. “Where are you going?” she would ask as I passed by where she sat watching, as usual, the Hallmark channel, parked in a wheelchair in her customary spot in the living room. “The gym.” “What?” “THE GYM. I’m going to THE GYM!”

“I can’t hear you,” she’d say. “The TV is on.”

But even with the television off, we never managed to find much to say. Sometimes she would ask me 13 times in a single meal if I lived nearby. (The answer, 13 times: “Yes, in the room next to yours.”) She seemed beyond conversation: ailing, 80, a member of old uppercrust Argentine high society. She could not have been more unlike my 20-year-old, Asian-American, middle-class self. This woman hobnobbed with European royalty and dined with Pavarotti in her day; I grew up pretending to be royalty (Cinderella) and dining on Publix chicken nuggets.

Over two long months of awkward silences at the dinner table, non-greetings, and translational boo-boos, we’ve both arrived at the conclusion that divisions of race, culture, generation, and economic class are not as easy to surmount as general wisdom would have it. No ringing choruses of “We are the World” in this house. Our conversational exchanges never quite leave the sphere of the superficial; the lofty realms of ’80s-synth-happy harmony are as accessible to us as Betelgeuse.

Yet we have found, I believe, the secret to living harmoniously in close quarters—a lesson that could be sore useful in international political circles.

Our solution? The age-old compromise of taking refuge in the mutual exchange of verbal snarkiness. I pass by her wheelchair now, and what comes out is our particular brand of peacekeeping diplomacy: “Don’t eat too much; you’re gaining weight,” she eyes my waist hawkishly and gleefully pinches my muffin top. “What are you walking around so fast for, eh? Training for a marathon?”

We’ve reached a delicate balance of shallow non-conversation in the house, a tacit accord. We understand each other—I think.

Grace Tiao ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint English and American literature and language and history and science concentrator in Currier House.