Working in a second language is always a challenge. Even when one knows the language well there are always things that can trip you up and cause a misunderstanding. And it’s considerably worse when you have limited skills in a language and don’t really understand the culture. That’s about where I am right now with my Arabic and living in Egypt. I always feel like I’m just out-of-step with things. I’m not quite sure if what I’m doing is culturally appropriate or that the word I’m trying to use is pronounced correctly or not. I mean—just a tiny twist in the turn of a phrase can mean the difference between a “How are you?” or something completely different that’s incomprehensible or even worse–rude or impolite. And working through translators can be just as much of a trial—maybe worse because you trust that the person who is speaking on your behalf knows what they’re doing. But in my years of working in other languages I’ve learned there’s an element of Russian Rolette in the whole translation process because it’s like playing that game of gossip where you say one thing and then someone else re-says it in their own words. More often than not something gets lost in the translation and it really messes up what you were trying to say. Clearly, a surefire recipe for disaster!
Over the years I’ve heard some great stories about folks who have grappled with this language thing. The pastors at the church district headquarters in Rwese, Zaire shared the story of a guest speaker who came to talk to their church who hailed from Australia. The missionaries in the part of Zaire where we were living at the time were mostly Americans. So the local pastors got used to hearing English the way it was pronounced by Americans. This was particularly important for the pastors who became skilled enough in English to conduct simultaneous translations from English into the local language of Kinande. They got used to hearing words said in a certain way in “Americanese” and when they heard things in English it was always filtered through that linguistic lens.
Simultaneous translations demand that you be quick to grasp what is being said. It’s a skill that needs to be automatic—something you do almost without thinking. So, that probably explains in part how the opening sentence of the Australian’s sermon “I’ve come here today…” got translated into Kinande as “I’ve come here to die…” instead. It wasn’t until the Australian preacher was well into his sermon that the translator realized his mistake. But by that time it was too late to correct it. To backtrack and tell the audience that indeed this man was not at death’s door and was not making a final trip to preach to congregations around the globe—that confession would have been too confusing. So, the translator continued to translate the sermon and hoped that folks would soon forget that some poor unknown Australian man came to Rwese to say his good-byes to them before dying. As you can well imagine it took a long time for that little congregation to forget that particular sermon because to think some poor bloke traveled half way around the world to speak to their tiny church before passing away—why that’s a very powerful message indeed.
One of the funniest translation stories I’ve ever heard took place in Bujumbura, Burundi. A church employee from the head quarters was visiting from Washington, DC. He was traveling to all the divisions in the church organization to talk to parishioners about setting up trusts to leave a portion of their assets to the church. Now the idea of leaving anything to anyone takes on a somewhat ludicrous meaning in a place where it’s a daily struggle to survive and provide the most basic things for one’s family. And even if someone has something to pass on to the next generation there’s no such thing as a trust there. The laws of inheritance are pretty straight-forward: the oldest son gets everything. But no matter, this man was making his rounds and doing his dutiful best to inform faithful churchgoers of the steps they could take to remember the church in their wills upon their deaths.
It was mid-summer when he made his momentous visit so the temperature in the unventilated church would have been pretty stifling. The few windows would have let in more flies than fresh air so that would explain in part the lackluster reaction he was getting from the audience. They were trying to pay attention but the topic made no sense to them and that coupled with the unbearable heat was a deadly combination. So, it was a silent and somewhat distant audience that listened to his sermon early that morning. Well, that is until he started talking about Ann Landers. Now, to be honest, it wasn’t really Ann Landers that caught their attention. It was the leeches.
In an effort to help the folks understand how meaningless it is to “save up for the future” the speaker shared with them a story about a man who had won a lot of money in a lottery. No one in the audience knew what a lottery was. That was as unfathomable to them as a trust. But they nodded their head in agreement even if they didn’t understand what he was talking about. They were good people; they were good church members; and they were trying to be a good audience. And when the speaker transitioned from lotteries to newspaper advice columnists it got even more incomprehensible since writing to advice columnists–and Ann Landers in particular–was completely unheard of in those parts.
But undaunted the speaker continued with his story about a man who won a great deal of money in this lottery. He went on to tell the audience that the lottery winner discovered that once he was wealthy all kinds of relatives and friends came out of the woodwork to put a claim on his riches. So, in his effort to deal with this problem he wrote to Ann Landers asking for her advice. Seems in his letter to her he mentioned that all these folks were “clinging to him like leeches…” Finally, at last the translator and then the audience heard something that morning that they could connect with—something that made sense in their world. This audience understood leeches. Whenever they worked in their fields there were leeches to contend with. Leeches were a daily reality. Leeches they understood. So, when the speaker said “leeches” and the translator translated it into the equivalent word in Kyrundi—why the audience came to life, sat up and took notice. No matter it didn’t make sense with whatever else he was talking about that morning. They understood leeches.
The preacher took notice too. And with this visible reaction from his audience he decided to build on the interest his illustration was generating. So, he told them more about the greedy friends and family– those leeches that “just clung to him” and how “he just got more and more of them and that they got bigger and bigger in their demands.” Well, the translator was on a roll now too and he helped the preacher along telling the audience just how horrible the situation was with the leeches hanging on all over the man’s body getting bigger and bigger all the time. “And the problem just didn’t go away. It lasted for months. He just couldn’t get rid of them.” And the translator shared how these leeches just wouldn’t drop off–there was nothing the man could do to rid himself of the leeches. Nothing at all would work to get those leeches off him for weeks on end. They were just sucking him dry; making his life miserable. The audience was aghast upon hearing of this poor man and imagining his horror. They couldn’t help but audibly express their shock over his wretched condition.
The more the audience “oohed” and “aahed” in response to the plight of this unfortunate man with leeches hanging on to him the more the preacher underscored just how miserable his situation was. And so the story grew getting bigger and bigger and stranger and stranger. The one person in the audience who could understand both languages (other than the translator and his understanding is arguably debatable) listened to the parallel sermons being preached that morning in total amusement. Two sermons in which the words were almost the same but the meanings were so completely different.
Later as the congregation left the church the members talked among themselves about this man in America and his deplorable situation. Some wondered how in a country as rich and powerful as America you would be unable to find a doctor who could do something about those leeches. Others pondered just what kind of leeches there must be in America to be so big and so bad that you could not get rid of them. And still others commented on what a powerful chief Ann Landers must be for someone to contact her in hopes she could get rid of the leeches when a doctor couldn’t do anything to help.
The speaker left the church thinking he’d really connected with the audience and made an impact with them on the need to remember the church when planning their wills and preparing a trust. The audience left completely baffled and horrified about the plight of some lone soul halfway around the world. The lone English and Kirundi speaker in the audience contemplated on just what the message was for him in these parallel universes he had just navigated.
Shared understandings. That seems to be the moral of this story. It’s all about shared understandings. So, in one’s efforts to accommodate different language groups and cultures you need to keep your antenna out there to be sure you’re communicating the right thing and that there’s a shared understanding. And you need to take care you have a good translator who can effectively navigate the challenge of the two different languages and that they aren’t accidently saying the right words but giving the wrong message. And you need to remember to steer clear of leeches. Whatever you do—steer clear of leeches!