You Never Know When You’ll Need to Translate

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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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