Saturday, February 13, 2010

Feeling Lost In Translation

Sorry it has been so long since I’ve done anything here, I tried to cheat and put up a video (a lot easier than writing something out) but it didn’t work. Things are slowly picking up around here; I started working at a school close to me doing a garden and compost project and I am going to start soon at another school, maybe two. I am also teaching an hour of English at one of the schools which I have mixed feelings about (I’m sure they have other things they could be learning that are more important) but whatever, the teachers kept bothering me about it so I guess they really want it.

My task of making these kids trilingual is accompanied by my own quest to become quad lingual (English, Spanish, K’iche’ and Basketball). I am taking K’iche’ classes twice a week for two hours from a guy in town named Rafael, who is a teacher in one of the communities. Slowly, I am catching on and learning how to make the q’ sound and differentiate it from the q, k, and k' sounds. Sometimes I wish I were filming these classes so in 10 years I could watch them and laugh my ass off seeing myself trying to pronounce q’oxom (pain) or kaqak’ayij (we sell). Sometimes after my tenth failed attempt at trying to pronounce a word, there will be a second of silence, Rafael will give me a look that can only be described as, “nope,” and then we will both start cracking up laughing. This happens often. I am making progress, however. It is not as if I don’t have anyone to practice it with. Sometimes I will try to impress people with a Tarzan-like sentence like, “Stephen see tree” or “Stephen happy.” Mostly the people here love it and eat it up like I’m a two year old saying my first words. (“Did you hear what the white kid just said? He said, ‘He see tree!’ We’re so proud of you! Do you know any other tricks?”) I now greet people in K’iche’ when I pass them, especially the older women who usually don’t speak Spanish, which nine times out of ten gets a stunned reaction best described as, “what the hell did that idiot white guy just say to me?”

The other day I was thinking about when I was in Mexico and occasionally someone—like a waiter or bank teller—would speak English and it was awesome and made my life so much easier. I remember walking in to somewhere and thinking, “Please God, let this person speak English, I have no idea how to do bank transactions in Spanish.” Now, this has changed to “Please God, let this person speak Spanish, I’m not in the mood for trying to sign language, ‘How much does this cost.’” Although my Spanish is doing alright these days, I think it just seems alright because they don’t speak the best or most fluent Spanish here. Sometimes when I go to a bigger city or watch TV or something I have a hard time understanding and it throws me off because I do just fine here in my site. Not only does the simple Spanish benefit me in that I can understand people, but people also think that I speak much better than I actually do. I was talking to an old man for a while and he asked me if I was from Spain. I couldn’t believe it, Spain? Really? I sound like Joe Namath talking to Suzy Kolber on the sideline of a Jets MNF game. Spain? After talking to another guy for a couple minutes he asked me if I was Guatemalan. I thought he was joking and started laughing. I looked back at him and immediately realized he wasn’t joking at all. This led to a very awkward moment. When I went to work at the school for the first time the teacher introduced me by saying, “This is Esteban, he’s not Guatemalan but he is going to be working with us.” Once again thinking this was a joke about how I am clearly not Guatemalan, I chuckled a little bit. He stopped talking and the whole class went silent wondering what I was laughing about. I fake coughed. That only made it worse.

My theory on this has nothing to do with my Spanish improving, because, it is still at times quite suspect. I think because the people here speak basic Spanish they hear me talk and don’t think, “This guy sounds like an idiot, I wonder what he thinks he’s saying” but rather they hear me speak and think, “Huh, this guy talks kinda funny. Judging by that and the fact that he is two feet taller than me, he must not be from these parts.”

The ironic thing about all of this is that there is not a word in Spanish for “awkward.” It’s really unfortunate because that would describe about 78% of the conversations I have here with people when we are both speaking in our second language and have nothing in common. The closest thing they have is incòmodo, which means uncomfortable. If you could see these conversations I am referring to, you would agree, “uncomfortable” isn’t coming close to doing it justice.


One of my favorite things that people do here in terms of our language barrier is when I am talking to someone and then after I respond, two people, usually women or kids, will whisper something to each other in K’iche’ so I can’t hear. Ummm, news flash: I DON”T SPEAK K’ICHE’! You could yell it into a bullhorn two inches from my face and I still would have no idea what the hell you’re saying. It baffles me every time.

About a week ago I was walking home and I ran into a nice older lady whom Don Juan and I once visited and who gave us coffee and bread when we got to her house. Maybe she was confused from that day when I thanked her and said goodbye in K’iche’ because when I saw her she stopped me and started speaking to me in K’iche.’ At first I wasn’t sure if she was just having some fun with me but it soon became clear that she was actually trying to have a conversation with me and as far as I could tell didn’t speak a word of Spanish. The conversation went something like this:

Lady: K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’ (Looks at me waiting for my response)
Me: Ummmmmm. (Pause) Ummmmm. (Pause) Qué?
Lady: K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’ K’iche’
Me: (with a look on my face like, well, like someone is speaking to me in K’iche’) Ummmmmm. Ooooook.

Then, I understood that she said something about ADESMA, the organization that I am partnered with here. In Spanish I said yes, I do indeed work for ADESMA. She looked at me with what I imagine was the same face I was just making. I then remembered that I kind of maybe might know how to say, “I work for ADESMA” in K’iche.’ I was sure even if I could get it out, this would not further the conversation in the slightest, but what the hell, I decided to go for it. I could picture the page in my notebook that had the verb “to work” and it conjugated in the first person. I said something, not knowing if it was even close to correct. The lady looked at me pleased and I thought, “Wow, that must have been it, she looks like she really understood that.” After wrapping up the strangest “conversation” I’ve ever had, I got home and looked in my notebook to see if I had said it right. Not even close. I have no idea what I said, if it was anything but nonsense I’d be amazed. Looking back on it, the weirdest part was the lady’s reaction. I swear, she looked at me like she knew exactly what I said. The next day I asked Rafael how to say, “I don’t speak K’iche’”: Kinch’awtaj pacha’bal. Great, just great.