Translation Problems in the Dominican Republic: September 2013


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It’s that special time of year where the crowds at the gym and the local chocolate supply dwindle in equal proportions. Four weeks in and the challenge of New Years Resolutions have successfully corroded people’s resolve, and life returns to the status quo. Because of this phenomenon I like to keep my New Years resolution simple: no resolutions. I already know I should go to the gym more and eat more vegetables. But it’s too cold in this polar vortex to worry about leaving my heat regulated apartment, which is currently a tropical 75°F.

That said, I understand the need to set goals. My desk is littered with post-notes reminders and my favorite Moleskin weekly planner filled with “to-dos” “due-by” and “bribes if you accomplish this task” notes. Most tasks get done but we all have our white whale of a goal/resolution/life achievement.

Mine being: to finally speak Spanish properly… preferably with someone who speaks Spanish. And yes, I understand how specific this is. However, five years after taking American Spanish in school and in college, I have figured out reading and writing in a passable fashion. However, any moment I find myself having to speak Spanish to a real-live Spanish speaker, I seize up. My New England accent turns into some weird southern drawl (despite never living in the South) or worse some odd British mutation. This has of course landed me in some very entertaining (for everyone around me) and humility situations.

Dominican Republic, September 2013

It all started with a well-time taxi advert on the cheapest luxury beach Caribbean resorts. Confirmed by some Expedia and Google research, Tara, Jodie and I found ourselves spending the Labor Day week on the white sand beaches of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. For first two days, we did nothing but eat, sit and sleep on the beach front canopy beds in front of the clearest, most azure-blue ocean. By Day 3, the tourist guilt had taken over and we headed over to Jorge, our friendly concierge and coconut supplier, to book a one day trip to Santa Domingo. Obviously, this was going to be more of a “spiritual, cultural, political gap yah”* style tourist trip—without the chundah-ring— rather than a meaningful, well-thought out trip. But we were still excited.

Our day was packed with cave exploration, drives through the rolling scenery, and winding wanders through the Colonial City… all before lunchtime. By the time we received our traditionally touristy lunch “tavern” we were ready for a nap. Being the survivors we are, we managed to gorge ourselves with the heaps of mangú (mashed, boiled plantains), La Bandera (mix of meat, red beans on white rice) and the best meat soup Sancocho. It was only at the end of the feast that I managed to look up and notice that we had been joined mid-bandera by an elderly Argentian couple. Confident off the Sancocho, I thought this would be the right time to break out my rusty Spanish.

Me: “Hola? Como estan usted?”

That’s right. Start off with the formal Uds. Form. Old people can’t resist my ingrained politeness 

Señor: “Hablas español?

Me: well [well timed bashful look down] uno poco.”

Everything was going well. I had used to the polite Uds. Form. I complimented him on his English, and his beautiful wife. I was in. AP Spanish for the win. He told us how he and his wife were visiting the DR for the fourth time, and how they had fallen in love with the beautiful scenery. Plus, he and his wife didn’t speak English, so this was the perfect northern destination.

Wait. What were those last fifteen sentences? Something about studying?

Me: “Sí, yo estudio español en la escuela?”

Okay more nodding. Great. Oh wait. He’s asking me what? Wait? Does he think I’m a student? Oh my god. He’s asking if my non-spanish speaking friends (Jo & Tara) speak Spanish.

Me: a couple more Spanish phrases.

Oh great.  Somehow I’ve managed to tell the nice elderly gentlemen that my friends and I are still in school. Now, I suppose I could have explained nicely that we were not in fact students. In fact, we were one lawyer, one Director of Client Relations, and one Business Development Manager. I could have re-emphasized my lack of Spanish skills.

Instead, I lied. I dutifully told him how we were students, on vacation, before school started. Simple sentences. It was great, until he turned to Jodie to ask her how she liked studying. I should add in that Jodie speaks fluent(ish) French and knew enough to know that I had somehow convinced this old man that we were students. Death stare in hand, she nodded, gestured about being a student.

Suddenly, I knew I had to get out. This lie was slowly crumbling. Questions were being raised about our subjects and future career aspirations. I moved to get up when I heard a crash.  Bang. Smash. A waiter had gotten distracted by the beautiful bachata dancers and dropped a place. I took the opportunity grabbed Jodie and Tara headed out the door.

Phew. That was close. Besides the evitable Tara and Jodie mocking I would be fine. Until, I remembered that we still had the rest of the tour to go, with the Argentinian couple sitting behind us on the bus. And they did finish the conversation back on the bus. Apparently I was really not subtle. I got a wink, and pitying “she speaks wonderful Spanish girls” compliment from Senor Ernesto.

Needless to say, I went back to the states and invested with in Rosetta Stone. Six months later, I am a couple lessons in and still not recovered from that last incident.

* If you have not seen the “Gap Yah” video yet you must stop what you are doing RIGHT NOW and watch it. It is amazing satire of people who travel to the “developing world” to gain “spiritual, cultural, political” awareness, and end up chundah-ring everywhere instead.


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