Monday, November 21, 2011

Lost in translation

Note: And edited version of this column appears in the 11/23 issue of The Glendale Star and the 11/25 issue of the Peoria Times

I began taking Spanish classes in seventh grade. I had no idea what was happening.

This confusion continued throughout high school, where Spanish remained my most difficult obstacle to a well-balanced intelligence. I could understand and translate certain words, but I simply could not grasp tenses and the fact that words had genders. The library is a lady but a book is a man? I'm sorry, but that's not what the Bible says.

I remember those rare occasions when I felt I was kind of getting it, and the teacher, sensing my newfound confidence, would begin speaking at a normal pace, and my head would explode and I would run out of the classroom holding my ears. Were it not for -- I'm not proud to say this -- a particular high school Spanish teacher who was not very adept at monitoring the classroom during testing, I never would have graduated.

In fact, six years of study be darned, I bombed the Spanish portion of a test entering college and was forced to start from scratch. That I could say "Me llamo Miguel" earned me an A-plus in Spanish 101, but the next three semesters were a downward spiral of ineptitude that finally, mercifully culminated in the most joyful D-minus I ever received.

I have always preferred to use clich├ęd excuses for my failures at another language, like, "Some people get it and some don't; I don't, and it's not my fault!" and, "If I just spent like two weeks in Spain, they'd be asking ME "Donde esta la biblioteca?" But the truth is, I honestly wish I could speak Spanish, especially now, living in Arizona, which is closer to Spain.

I'm not one of those people who is offended by Spanish because this is America and bald eagles and what not. I'd rather be able to broaden my horizons and communicate more effectively. My attempts to do so, however, often fall flat.

Last weekend we installed new flooring in our living room. Rather, I should say we had new flooring installed, since I have never properly installed anything besides iPhone apps in my entire life. Instead, two fine gentlemen of Mexican descent did the installing, and I tried my best to make them feel at home.

When attempting to communicate with those who speak Spanish, I rarely use words like, "Si," and "Gracias," because I feel it only exposes my inability to grasp Spanish. Instead I use English slowly and loudly, as if I am talking to a two-year child of any nationality, with exaggerated hand movements: WOULD YOU (pointing) LIKE (rub heart) SOME COFFEE (awkward motion of bringing a mug to my lips; Ouch, this pretend coffee is hot!)?

Wanting to get further on their good side, I offered to play some music for them as they worked. Spanish music, perhaps? Of course! I went to the Spotify program on my laptop and searched "Spanish music," because that was as specific as I could be. A group called Mecana came up. Click! The music began playing and, even for someone unfamiliar with the genre, it sounded awful. I looked at the guys and shrugged, "Is this okay?" They gave me a sheepish and unconvincing thumbs up, which is Spanish for, "Not really, but please go away."

I was fairly certain I was playing for them the Spanish version of Celine Dion, especially after I later researched Wikipedia, which said, "Spanish music critics do not consider the band one of the most representative ensembles of the aforementioned cultural wave." Also, one of the members of Mecana is named Nacho, which seems offensive even to me, and I am Caucasian.

Making matters worse, Spotify links to Facebook, so in the feed for all two hundred of my supposed friends was the news that "Mike Kenny is listening to Mecano on Spotify." So this choice of music was embarrassing for everyone involved.

I could have simply asked them for a more specific recommendation, but I was paranoid that further attempted communication would make me look like more of an idiot. This situation is what eight years of Spanish study had earned me.

The next morning the men returned to finish the job, but this time my wife's cousin was with us, who speaks Italian, English, and Spanish. She took over, speaking to them fluently as I looked on in awed, jealous wonder. She discovered many things about their personal lives, including that, sure, they'd love a bagel! Then she was off to work, and I worried that the guys thought we had actually hired someone to come over and communicate with them for a few minutes.

Nevertheless, armed with that perceived street cred, I handed them their breakfast as they walked out the door, saying, "Here are los bagels!" They were very happy and impressed. They probably thought I was Spanish or something. I just may get this language yet.

3 comments:

Lisa R said...

Soooo funny

Bill said...

I too took many semesters of Spanish, starting in high school in my case, and just never could pick it up. (Even did the same thing you did - and also not proud of it - to pass my final semester of Spanish in community college.)

I always felt the key to picking it up was starting early enough in childhood, but maybe that was just my excuse too. Either that, or I didn't have a great teacher like Senor Chang.

mkenny59 said...

Thank you both! And yes, Bill, excellent point about not having a great teacher like Senor Chang. I had forgotten to add to my excuse list being bereft of a teacher of his caliber.