You Never Know When You'll Need to Translate

Students sometimes grumble about requirements that they take classes in a second language. “Why bother? When am I going to use this?” they ask.

The truth is that knowing how to speak a second language can come in handy at the most unexpected moments, even if you don’t become a world traveler or get a job as an interpreter. As often as not, the world comes to you.

I was reminded of this on a recent plane ride. The seat next to me was commandeered by a woman carrying an adorable toddler and an enormous white purse, which naturally landed in my lap. My Spanish skills are deplorably rusty, but fortunately a good bit of the language is still lurking somewhere in the folds of my brain. So, when she said, “¡Discúlpeme!” I automatically responded with “Está bien.”

Of course, I had to explain that I only spoke a little Spanish. She spoke a little English, though, so we managed to have a brief conversation. She and her family were recent arrivals from Cuba, and apparently quite happy to be in the United States. I listened to her talk to her daughter, saying simple phrases in Spanish and then repeating them in English, if she knew the English words. Baby talk Spanish- right on my level!

Then, the little girl decided she wanted to go across the aisle to her father. Her mother passed her over as the plane was moving. Based on the flight attendant’s reaction, this was obviously against the rules. Also, there wasn’t an extra oxygen mask for the little girl in that particular seat.

The plane had to stop while the situation was dealt with. Unfortunately, none of the flight crew spoke any Spanish. The hapless stewardess approached the couple and said, “Ummm…the bambino needs to sit in this seat before we can take off.” The Cuban couple nodded uncomprehendingly, so she repeated the sentence again and again, each time more slowly than the last.

Rusty gears began to turn in my head, and I caught the Cuban woman’s attention.

“Ella dice que su hija necesita sentar en este … seat.” Not perfect, and I totally forgot the word for “seat,” but it worked. The little girl was moved and the plane was able to take off. Other passengers were amazed at my (not especially impressive) feat of communication.

My new goal: to brush up on my Spanish. There’s something almost magical about being able to communicate, even imperfectly, with people from other countries and other cultures. Besides…you never know when you’ll need to translate!

Have you ever been asked to translate on the spur of the moment? Share your stories in the comments!

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4 replies
  1. Ben Jones
    Ben Jones says:

    I’ve been asked to *interpret* on the spur of the moment. I was one of a crowd of thousands at the Great British Beer Festival, when an announcement came over the tannoy: “If there happens to be someone here who speaks Japanese, please contact the stewards urgently”. I told the nearest one that I was a professional Japanese interpreter and they guided me to the first-aid area, where I found a young Japanese lady who had evidently had too much barley wine and was requesting assistance. Her English was poor and spoken with such an accent (not helped by her condition) that the medical staff did not even understand that it was English much of the time. I helped them communicate for maybe 20 minutes, until they were at all ease that she was in no danger and merely needed to go home and sleep it off. Job done.

  2. Annie Pagano
    Annie Pagano says:

    I was recently in Dublin visiting my cousin who is studying abroad there. She was planning on flying to Barcelona the following weekend on Iberia Airlines. However, Iberia was planning on going on strike during her flight and she received an email from them in Spanish and began to freak out. She asked if I could translate it for her (my mom is Puerto Rican and I am very good at Spanish but not completely fluent). I began to skim it in Spanish in my head and the English came out of my mouth so fluidly! One of her friends in the room said, “ that email in Spanish?”. Needless to say I was pretty proud of myself! Sometimes when put on the spot your brain really comes through!


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