Lost in Traducción

I was uncool today.

You see, in protest against the cold I’d bought myself a hot water bottle, and in celebration I texted my friend to tell her about it. I was caught up in the moment and decided to use the Spanish word guaton instead of “water bottle.” My friend was quick to point out that guaton means “fat person.” The word I was looking for was guatero.

Guatero
This is a guatero
Guaton
This is a guaton

As most of my readers will know, I am quite a cool guy. Too often, my friends will approach me in the street and say, “Hey Michael, you’re quite a cool guy.”

It happens everywhere: When I’m at parties, when I’m on my way to work, when I’m leaning against other people’s parked motorbikes. However, there is a specific time when I’m decidedly uncool, and that’s when I try speaking Spanish. As a grownup, I realise that the most important detail to keep in mind when learning a new language is to make sure you don’t look silly when practicing the target language. Children have yet to learn this.

But I think the uncoolest thing I’ve ever done in Spanish was when I unfairly accused a Chilean man of something terribly unjust and un-called for. It was such a far-out bit of miscommunication that to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to make reparations.

First of all, let me explain the situation (somewhat simplified for the sake of brevity): Earlier this year, I discovered a single bedroom apartment that was available for rent, and at a stunningly low price too. Until then, I’d always lived with a roommate, and I wanted my own place desperately. So I staked my claim and won the keys to the apartment. Problem was, I couldn’t move in on the first day of the month, and I had to move out of my other place at the end of the previous month. That meant that there were going to be a few days when I’d be in limbo.

A very good friend of mine offered me the use of his single-bedroom apartment while I waited for my new place to become available, and I accepted his offer graciously. It was going to be cramped, but it was only for a few days.

After some searching, I found the details of a flete, which is what Chileans call movers. I have just this moment learned that flete is Spanish for “freight.” The mover in question was named Pedro. He was friendly and he spoke some English. He also really seemed to know what he was doing. He helped me to load my cumbersome possessions onto the back of his flatbed truck and take them over to my friend’s apartment. It was a swift procedure, and Pedro and I parted as friends, with the agreement that he would return in a few days to help me transport my things to my new apartment.

Pablo
This is Pedro, shrouded in darkness. Much like our friendship.

A day or two later, I received a message from Pedro. He’d strained his back while moving someone’s furniture and he wouldn’t be able to help me on the agreed-upon date. Was I willing to wait a few more days for him to recover?

I liked Pedro, and I did want to use his services. At the same time, however, I was sleeping on a couch and was totally invading my friend’s space. I didn’t want to wait for Pedro to recover, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I explained to him, using a messy kind of Spanglish, that expediency was of the utmost importance. I told him that I would search for a more timeous mover, and in the event that I couldn’t find one, I would wait for Pedro to get back on his feet.

Possessions
When John Lennon said, “Imagine all possessions,” I actually could.

Well, that very day I found my man. I don’t remember his name, but he was slightly more expensive than Pedro. Still, I was impatient, so I hired him. In a way, I was kind of glad that he was more expensive. I could use that as a way to smooth things over with Pedro. I intended to explain to him that the guy I found wasn’t nearly as good as he was. And, what’s more, this other guy was more expensive! So of course I would procure Pedro’s services again in the future, and even recommend him to my friends. I wrote all this out to Pedro in a Facebook message, and it was mostly in Spanish. Pedro accepted my explanation in a way that seemed cold to me. He wasn’t as chummy as he had been before, but I couldn’t blame him – he was losing a client, after all.

Aside Number 1: When learning a new language, it’s often helpful to learn new words along with their opposites. When I learned the Spanish word for boy (niño) I also learned the word for girl (niña). I also learned “long” and “short” together (largo y corto), as well as “expensive” and “cheap” (caro y barrato). This last one is important, because not only were these words that I was using with Pedro, but caro and barrato are also words that I sometimes get mixed up.

Perhaps you can see where this is going, but I assure you, you don’t.

Within my message to Pedro, I started writing “I have found someone who is more expensive than you are…”

In Spanish, it goes like this: “He encuento algien quien esta mas caro que tu…”

Aside Number 2: When learning a new language, it’s not uncommon to confuse words that tend to sound the same. For example, when I started learning Spanish, I would get confused between the word for “sixty” (seisenta) and “seventy” (setenta). I would often (and I still do) mix up “fifty” (cincuenta) and “five hundred” (quinientos). But my downfall with Pedro came about because, to me, the word for “cheap” (barrato) sounds very much like the word baracho, which is the Spanish word meaning “drunk.”

So my final message to Pedro wound up saying, “He encuentro algien quien esta mas baracho que tu…,” which of course means, “I have found someone who is more drunk than you are.”

I sent off that message without batting an eyelid, and slept soundly that night secure in the belief that Pedro and I were still on good terms. It was only about a week later, when I overheard someone say the word barrato in conversation, that thought back to that message to Pedro. I knew with certainty that I’d gotten “cheap” and “expensive” mixed up and resolved to rectify my error. I didn’t want Pedro to think I’d found someone better. I fully intended to go back and explain what had happened. It was a temporary lapse. My Spanish wasn’t so good, after all. But when I reopened the Facebook message and spied the word boracho instead of barrato, I knew that I was beyond redemption. My two-fold mistake was far to complicated and uncool to explain. I don’t think I even had the Spanish vocabulary to explain what had happened.

So I dropped the matter. I suppose it doesn’t matter really. I’m cosy in my own apartment, with my fat man keeping my tummy warm, and somewhere out there a really decent Chilean man thinks that a foreigner once accused him of being an alcoholic.

Fat man
I might have lost Pedro as a friend, but at least I’ve got my fat man.

 

Get, Lost: A Brief Guide to Bridging the Language Divide

I’ve spent a large portion of my twenties communicating with people who don’t speak English as a first language. Many of the people I’ve encountered don’t speak English at all, and over the years I’ve learned to optimize communication when words fall short. Thai people, for example, have trouble understanding you when you scream English into their faces. This goes for Chileans too, as well as Bolivians. And bus drivers. Actually, screaming English into someone’s face doesn’t really work as a thing.

But I’ve been around Spanish for a while now, and while I am by no means fluent in the language, I’ve at least learned enough about it to know some of the best ways to modify my English to optimize comprehension by a Spanish speaker who is not very fluent in English. So here follows a short list of things to do in order to aid communication from English to Spanish:

1.) Use Really Big Words

Chthonic
But not too big. That’s just pretentious.

Now, upon reading such a rule it can be reasonably assumed that the reader might exclaim, “Aha! That sounds like deception! This isn’t a reliable list at all!” But, please, Dear Reader, trust me on this. Because of the Latin influence in both English and Spanish, there are a lot of cognates between both. So, while your first impulse when talking to a Spanish speaker might be to “dumb down” your language, you’ll actually be doing your conversation partner a favour by elevating your vocabulary. So, for example:

Say “temperament” instead of “mood.”

Say “inundation” instead of “flood.”

Say “timid” instead of “shy.”

Say “encounter” instead of “meet.”

These words all have Spanish cognates, and will help a Spanish speaker quickly grasp your meaning. So, if you ever want to tell a Spanish speaker about the timid inundation you encountered which put you in a bad temperament, you won’t sound mad at all.

2.) Get Rid of Get

Black Hole
I don’t think even Stephen Hawking can explain “Get.”

For a lot of my students, the word “Get” is a lot like a black hole: They know that it exists, but they have trouble locating its exact whereabouts. It will almost never show up in a basic English speaker’s lexicon, but its Event Horizon is marked by the use of its many synonyms that circle the location where “Get” would fit in quite perfectly. My students will often go to great lengths to avoid using that dastardly three letter word. Look up the definition for “get,” and it’ll take your breath away. I’m often faced with sentences groaning under the scaffolding of phrases like “I was able to achieve” or “I wanted to become better at English, but I do not understand the joke about the inundation.”

3.) Avoid Phrasal Verbs.

Take Off
I love the sight of a plane giving up. Or off. Or whatever.

Following closely on the heels of “Get” we have our versatile phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a short idiomatic expression usually consisting of at least one verb and one preposition. “Ask for” is a phrasal verb. So is “Carry on” and “Look forward to.” Each phrasal verb should be treated like a new unit of vocabulary altogether. It’s tricky to figure out its meaning on a first reading. And the variety! Holy cow! Try telling a student that to “Take off” means to remove an item of clothing and to leave an event and for a plane to go up in the air and for something to become successful. Now expect them to remember all of those meanings and then to know exactly in which way you mean it when you fire it at them in conversation. What a task! So, do your discussion partner a favour, and say “Request” instead of “Ask for,” “Continue” instead of “Carry on,” and “Eagerly await for something positive that you expect will happen in the future” instead of “look forward to.”

4.) Pretend You’re in Downton Abby

Downton Abby
This is just the kind of nonsense up with which the Dowager Countess shall not put.

This last rule is really the golden rule, as it pretty much includes all the rules that go before it. But along with avoiding phrasal verbs, and “Get,” and by using a higher vocabulary, the characters in Ye Olde English Televisione Showes also speak in a way that mirrors the structure of Spanish. One of the more prominent ways is that characters in Downton Abby usually put their prepositions at the beginning of a sentence. Google Translate will tell you that the literal translation of “Who did you speak to?” in Spanish is “With whom did you speak?”

I haven’t really done any research on the matter, but it seems to me that the structure of Spanish echoes the way English used to sound. So by pulling your speech back in time a few decades, you have a better chance of reaching your Spanish-speaking audience.

While this list is not foolproof, and although it may make you sound like a banana to all your English speaking friends, these hints will provide welcome solace any time you happen to be communicating with a Spanish speaker who has only just started to get a grasp of English.

Banana
Pictured: A successful bridge between languages.

Santiago: A Beautiful, Humming, Charming City

I’ve been in Chile for over two weeks now, and I think it’s time to take stock of how things are going:

I’m still alive.

I’ve started teaching.

I’ve begun taking Spanish lessons.

I’ve walked around the city a lot, and have even taken two walking tours.

I’ve made some friends.

I’ve gotten the hang of public transport.

I’m still homeless.

Homeless guy doesn't give a crap
I use the term “homeless” quite wrongly. I’m nothing like this guy, who wandered through our tour group asking for money and reeking to high Heaven. What a champion.

Overall, things are going splendidly. Except for the homelessness thing. But that should be resolved in the next couple of days. I’ve already checked out a few apartments, and I think I’ve found one that I’m willing to commit to. The only other occupant is a Chilean photographer named Nathan. He doesn’t speak any English, but I find him to be friendly and easy going. And I like the idea of living with a Chilean – it’ll help me develop my Spanish. So we’ll see.

And I’m not entirely homeless, either. I’m still staying at the same hostel I moved into when I got here. I’ve begun to bond with a few of the other “lifers” who have been staying here for a long time. There’s Elliott, an Australian fellow who intends to ride his bicycle around South America. He ordered a trailer from Poland, which he can attach to his bike to transport his luggage. Unfortunately, the trailer got stuck at customs in Chile, and Elliott has been stuck here for days upon days, waiting for his trailer to be release so he can continue on with his adventure.

The outside of my hostel. It communicates how eco friendly the place is. Although it's also entirely possible that some vandals did this.
The outside of my hostel. It communicates how eco friendly the place is. Although it’s also entirely possible that some vandals did this.

Then there’s Angela, who is from the Italian part of Switzerland, and who has been living in South America for so long that she now speaks Spanish fluently. She used to work at the hostel where we’re staying, but she resigned with the intention of finding work as a masseuse in another part of Chile. Hers is a bit of a long story, but after a bit of a runaround she has come back to stay at Ecohostel while she continues to look for work. So on most days I find myself sitting in the courtyard with Elliott and Angela, talking about nonsense or really deep issues. I guess we’ve developed one of those casual, accidental friendships that creeps up on you and takes you by surprise. A few days ago Elliott suggested we pool our resources and make a group meal. So we bought a few more ingredients, and then took the kitchen by storm. Elliott did most of the cooking, while Angela chopped vegetables with almost psychotic zeal. There wasn’t much for me to do, so I offered to wash the dishes afterwards. It was a good teambuilding moment, and after that we’ve sought out each other’s company when we’re at the hostel with nothing to do.

Elliot. Or Master Chef Elliott, as I have just this instant decided to call him.
Elliot. Or Master Chef Elliott, as I have just this instant decided to call him.
Cooking up a storm with Angela and Elliott. Well, they're doing the cooking, I'm just cracking wise and taking pictures.
Cooking up a storm with Angela and Elliott. Well, they’re doing the cooking, I’m just cracking wise and taking pictures.
The trick is to put the chopped onions in first, put the garlic in with the mushrooms, and remove the spatula before eating.
The trick is to put the chopped onions in first, put the garlic in with the mushrooms, and remove the spatula before eating.

Things are going well outside of my place of temporary residence, too. Let me tell you about Santiago:

It’s beautiful, humming, charming city. Of course, it’s February, the month where everyone leaves the city and heads to the coast. I’ve been told that from the start of March, the population of this city is going to double. That means that the streets will be crazy-crowded. I’m bracing for the worst.

In the meantime, I can’t get over how much I love this place. It’s a city of pedestrians. People walk everywhere. There are parks all over the city where dogs are welcome to frolic.

Dog parks full of dogs! This is one of my favourite things about this city.
Dog parks full of dogs! This is one of my favourite things about this city.

Gravel paths have been created in every park to assist the copious amounts of runners and cyclists in getting their daily exercise. They drive on the right side of the road here, so I have a tendency to walk into people a lot.

There was a puppet show happening in the park the other day. I love how the girl in yellow is looking at her dad as if to check that he's following the plot.
There was a puppet show happening in the park the other day. I love how the girl in yellow is looking at her dad as if to check that he’s following the plot.

Everyone here is an artist. Most locals are extravagantly painted in bright, creative tattoos. Their hair is wild and styled and shaved off in places. They dress up so colourfully, and expressively, and always impressively. And before I go off on some poetical tangent, let me say that there are musicians everywhere. I’ve walked around this city a great deal. Most places I go to, especially in the evenings, there are people playing various instruments: guitars, violins, accordions, even drums that are mounted on their backs. Sometimes there are bands of people. Sometimes there are singers. The other day I got onto a bus with two men who were rapping in Spanish with the aid of a portable microphone and speaker.

This jolly band set themselves up in front of the entrance to the underground. Isn't that nice? Kinda wanted to use the subway, but I guess I'll just walk now.
This jolly band set themselves up in front of the entrance to the underground. Isn’t that nice? Kinda wanted to use the subway, but I guess I’ll just walk now.
Sure, this guy may look like a sad little drummer, drumming in front of a pizza joint, but his neat beats had me tapping my feet.
Sure, this guy may look like a sad little drummer, drumming in front of a pizza joint, but his neat beats had me tapping my feet.

The streets are painted in all sorts of marvelous graffiti, some of which was commissioned by the government. During a walking tour, I was shown some impressive murals that were painted by a prominent Chilean artist who now lives in Europe. I forget his name.

Look at these murals. Look at them. They're massive, and they signify things which are important and which I can't remember.
Look at these murals. Look at them. They’re massive, and they signify things which are important and which I can’t remember.

In the evenings, performers take to the streets, and display their craft for the motorists stopped at traffic lights. I’ve seen skills on the streets of Santiago that would look right at home inside a professional theatre. At one intersection I stopped to watch one woman who would balance on a unicycle while simultaneously juggling and balancing a football on her foot. My favourite thing about her was the way she’d bow her head and warmly smile at any motorist who gave her money. She seemed like she was genuinely having fun.

On other occasions I saw a couple perform some impressive gymnastics, and a gentleman on stilts juggling flaming batons.

Santiago is a city of creativity, and I feel as if I’ll never get bored here. There is a theatre on just about every street. There are markets everywhere. Things that are alternative are welcomed here. Creativity is celebrated.

You know those women who are tables? Here's one of them.
You know those women who are also tables? Here’s one of them.

 

A unicycle, juggling batons, and a football. Put these things together and you've got... Well you've got those things acting independently of each other.
A unicycle, juggling batons, and a football. Put these things together and you’ve got… Well you’ve got those things acting independently of each other.
If you don't tip this man, he will throw a tiny woman through your windscreen.
If you don’t tip this man, he will throw a tiny woman through your windscreen.

 

When I first arrived in Santiago, I caught wind of a pub crawl that was happening the following Saturday. The event was advertised in English, so I went there hoping to meet some English-speaking friends.

It was due to start at 22.00, and I arrived there right on time. This of course meant that I was the first one there. I paid an entrance fee at the door, was given a wristband, and was ushered into the back of the bar. There, I discovered a small courtyard, at the back of which was a table laid out with plastic cups. Behind the table were two Chilean women, each holding a large bottle of beer. They greeted me in English and filled a cup for me. I went and stood off to one side, and a few moments later a group of four people walked in, and as they walked past me to get to the table I heard that they were speaking English. Once they had collected their free beer, I approached and introduced myself. The group was from the United States. Their names were Ariana (Ari), Holly, Faye, and Eric. They were friendly, and I enjoyed talking to them. My enjoyment increased when they told me that they were doing a teaching course in Santiago, after which they planned to stay and find work as English teachers. This was good. It meant a possible connection to a social network.

More people began arriving, and everyone was happy to mingle and strike up conversations with strangers. I met Aliya, a lovely French girl who had come to Santiago to study. I met Joel, who was a bushy-haired Australian who had stepped off the plane a few hours before, and was travelling around South America. I also spoke to a Kiwi woman named Dotre (pronounced “daughter”), and a couple from Sweden, whose names I have since forgotten.

It was a wonderful night, and I met some lovely people, but by the end of it I’d only gotten the contact information of Ari. I didn’t mind about this in the least. I enjoyed talking to Ari, and I knew that through her I’d probably get to see the other North Americans again (I gather that, in Chile, it’s important to not refer to people from the United States as “Americans.” Understandably so, since Chileans are Americans too). I was excited at the prospect of having a group of friends from the United States.

I saw Ari a few more times over the next few days, and our friendship has grown into something pretty solid. In this beautiful, humming, charming city, Ari is a good, reliable presence, and that’s reassuring.

This is Ari. One day she'll see this blog, and she'll say, "I can't believe you put that photo into your blog." And I'll say, "I like this photo on account of how much sex appeal I have in it."
This is Ari. One day she’ll see this blog, and she’ll say, “I can’t believe you put that photo into your blog.” And I’ll say, “I like this photo on account of how casually sexy we are in it.”

I also have a job now. I’m teaching English as I had intended, and I have a total of one student. His name is Rolando, and he runs a soap and shampoo factory way out in the western part of the city. To get there, I have to take a subway (a metro) across about twelve stops, ride a bus for about eight minutes, and then walk two blocks in order to get to his factory where the classes take place. On my first day teaching him, as I rode the metro with Robert (who is one of my bosses and the coordinator of my classes with Rolando), he explained to me that Rolando was a businessman who likes routine and structure. There was talk about the possibility that, if he liked my teaching, then he’d sign up some of his employees to also take English lessons with the company I work for. I felt like this put pressure on me to create a good impression – a daunting task when I considered that Rolando was probably going to be a surly, difficult student.

But I was put at ease within moments of meeting him. He greeted us warmly and was quick to make jokes. After Robert took his leave (he had come with me on the first day to make sure I found the place alright), I found that Rolando was a keen student. He focused hard on what I was saying, and made an effort to get everything right. He really does have an ordered mind. He has a way of explaining himself clearly and concisely. So, despite the travelling, I quite enjoy teaching Rolando.

The metro. An underground labyrinth of machinery and darkness. Just twelve rand gets you in.
The metro. An underground labyrinth of machinery and darkness. Just twelve rand gets you in.

Meanwhile, back at the company I work for, I have started taking Spanish lessons. When I went for my job interview, I asked if Spanish lessons were available, and Daniel (my main boss) told me that the company didn’t offer any. But when I went back again a few days later to sit in on a grammar class, Daniel called me into his office and told me that he’d arranged for another one of the teachers to teach me Spanish. The teacher in question, a woman named Harper, is from the United States. Daniel assured me that her Spanish is impeccable, and that she’d be a perfect candidate to teach me the language because she’d be able to teach me from the perspective of an English speaker. Harper is great. She’s easy to talk to, and she has an impressive grasp of English and Spanish grammar. Hopefully, with her help, I’ll be having conversations in Spanish before long.

I also met some other teachers who have just started teaching at the company. Their names are Kristen, Jordan, John, and Dorian. They were all very friendly to me, and they seemed keen to be friends instead of just work colleagues. I’m sure I’ll be socializing with them a lot more in the future.

So, dear reader, I’m getting there. I’ve almost gotten my claws into this beautiful, humming, charming city. I just need to find a place to live, and then I’ll be set. If all goes well, that last part will be settled by the time I write again.

Watch this space.

The magnificent Virgin Mary looks out over Santiago. What have those grand eyes seen? They've seen Santiago. I just told you that.
The magnificent Virgin Mary looks out over Santiago. What have those grand eyes seen?
They’ve seen Santiago. I just told you that.

 

You can read my other blog about Chile in Fishbowl Magazine: http://fishbowl.za.com/chileans-warm-or-chilly/