Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost in Translation

Sitting in the cafe where I write, an older couple from Japan is struggling with hand motions to convey to the barista their desire for a cup of hot water. The Japanese man made a cup with his hands and put it to his lips as if to drink it. This seemed quite clear and first...until things quickly got complicated when he started to put the imaginary cup of hot water into a bowl (shaped with his hands) of noodles (which he attempted to "eat") with chopsticks. Oh my.

The poor employee started to get confused whether or not the couple wanted hot water to pour into a bowl of noodles, or if they want to purchase noodles to eat for dinner (which aren't even sold here). After the barista made some of her own gestures, swinging her arms in reply (dont try this at home kids), the couple looked even more puzzled than before and the cycle of charades continued...and escalated into more confusion. The desperate players looked at me, at my far away table, as if to ask for some intervention.

Having lived abroad in Japan, I know the real life game of charades all too well. I'm grateful to all the Japanese people were so patient with me, my limited broken Japanese language skills, and my animated hand gestures. Witnessing this couple's struggle, I decide to get out of my seat to 'assist' the floundering conversation.

Attempting to clairify the situation, I muttered, Que tu quieres? Hmmmn. That was of no help. Having lost all recollection of Japanese words and phrases, it became clear that I as useless as a cherry pie on a kitchen table. I could not even recall how to say the simplest words like "water" "hot" and "what do you want?" in Japanese.

It's as if the "foreign language" part of my brain only recalls the last language I worked with. When I was in France, I would only recall Japanese words. When in Italy, French phrases. And in Japan, Spanish. And as far as Hawaiian pidgeon goes, well, I just end up scratching my head alot.

{Actually, I tried to "practice" speaking pidgeon one day by giving my friend driving directions with a local slang. It went something like this: "try go out of the pocking lot, head mauka to da signal, nevamind dem pukas in the road, get one round about, turn left, and stop at da back house." To which I got a roar of laughter and screams begging me to "pleeeeeeease stop" for I was insuling rather than honoring local speak.}

But back to the Japanese couple. Having lost all skills in Japanese and only adding more confusion to the situation as I added in my own hand gestures, I finally came up with a better solution: Google.

Yes, when all else fails in life, Google always has the answer. Just log on to Google Translation, type in any English phrase you want, and out spits the Japanese translation--both in hiragana (Japanese characters) and romanji (English pronouncation):
Nani o shi tai?

Once again, Google to the rescue. It sure beats hand gestures, puzzled looks and Spanish interjections.

1 comment:

arthur said...

Unfortuantely, skill with languages (including pidgin) is not like riding a bicycle.

When I was a kid someone told me we were speaking "pigeon English" and I thought it was because our English was so bad only a pigeon could understand it. Maybe I should practice my pidgin with pigeons.