Lost in Translation
And an accidental kidnapping
By Beth MacDonald
Speaking languages other than English has always been a dream of mine. It’s also always been a strong point of failure. I’ve tried. I’d love to put a language other than “Pig Latin” on my LinkedIn profile. I’m curious and love to travel. I’d also love to join the ranks of those people at parties who brag about being fluent in seven actual languages or at least one good dead one like Coptic (not something sarcastic like “Sailor Talk,” “Toddler” or “Dog Whisperer”).
In high school I took French, dreaming of the day I would visit Paris and chicly order a croissant with the perfect accent: “Un qua-san, see-voo-play.” I envisioned myself at a café table looking mysterious, without spilling any crumbs on my haute couture, looking like Brigitte Bardot. I’d elegantly smoke a cigarette with a fashionable long black opera holder. When I eventually made it to Paris I almost sent my high school teacher a postcard that said, “Thanks for nothing.” I couldn’t even order water. I tried. I couldn’t get the accent right or the article in front of it. Desperate, I even tried saying “agua,” remembering an old episode of Sesame Street when I saw a man crawling through a desert repeating that word over and over.
After standing at a café counter/desert for what seemed like an eternity, without a result, the woman waiting on me finally asked me, in English, if I wanted a bottle of sparkling or plain. Le sigh.
I moved to Italy in my 20s. I took some college-level Italian courses so I could communicate effectively with my counterparts in country for a job I’d accepted. I went to the same gas station every week, for four years, confidently asking for a pen to sign my NATO gas rations. One day a friend pointed out I wasn’t asking for a pen. I had been asking for an appendage. L’oops! I had to find another gas station after that horrific blunder.
Before my first business trip to Guatemala I tried to learn some basic phrases. Thankfully, I already knew how to ask for agua. My husband, Mason, had taken Spanish in high school and was much more successful with his knowledge of that language than mine of French (or Italian, for that matter). He’d also been to Central America on several occasions. We even had a fluent Spanish speaker on our team going with us; we should have been linguistically set.
Two days into our trip we found ourselves hopelessly lost trying to find a meeting point with colleagues. We stopped and asked a woman on the street for directions. Our interpreter couldn’t understand her; Mason was saying a few words in Spanish that sounded convincing. They even included some interpretive dance moves to help emphasize our urgency. I sat in the van with the rest of our crew, useless and confused.
Finally, after much deliberation regarding the fact that we needed to get to point A, someone said, “Get her in the van!” The woman somehow understood that and jumped in. I frantically checked my purse for candy. To me, that made sense. We had just kidnapped someone — in a van! Aren’t you supposed to give them free candy? We didn’t have an airbrushed wizard and unicorn on the side panel. I didn’t want her experience diminished.
She sat in the back with me, smiling and pointing, speaking words I didn’t understand at all. The totality of my Spanish equaled “water, bathroom, please, and thank you.” It didn’t include, “Sorry for kidnapping you. We come in peace. Have a lollipop.” She was very good at designating turns and other various recommendations that we all assumed meant “straight” or “bear right.”
After several miles and many more turns I began to suspect we might have been kidnapped. I started nervously eating my own hard candy, chewing loudly to drown out the sound of my inner monologue going over numerous urban legends.
One of our team members was on her GPS app. “Is this right? I think we’re going the wrong way.”
My wild imagination was overrun by the very real fact that all of this anxiety caused my deodorant to quit working in a warm van full of people. It was only a matter of time until I made that automobile smell like a bus in Bangladesh in July. Dios mio!
Finally we stopped at a mini-mall parking lot. The woman opened the van door, hopped out, and with a grateful and friendly, “Gracias!” held up her candy and waved goodbye.
Silence shrouded the vehicle. Mason understood what happened. We dropped her off at the grocery store closest to her house, gave her candy, and saved her a bus fare. With a collective sigh of relief that we hadn’t caused an international incident, we looked at each other, looked at the grocery store, and went in. I needed deodorant. PS
Beth MacDonald is a Southern Pines suburban misadventurer that likes to make words up. She loves to travel with her family, read everything she can, and shop locally for her socks.