Saturday, 4 August 2007

Found in Translation

Reading Amel's blog entry on her adventure in applying for a library card in Finnish reminded me of a wonderful man I met a long time ago.

I used to work at a library in South Africa. One day this dear old man came in.. and the other librarians wailed "Oh nooo!!!" It turned out the old man was Italian and spoke no English. He had come to South Africa to live with his son. How we got by without being able to communicate was quite unique. He had a list of phone numbers of family and people he knew who spoke both English and Italian. Everywhere he went (I saw him do this in the bank once) he would hand over his list and say "please phone". Then he'd get the person on the phone line to act as his translator.

This day at the library we phoned all the numbers on his list, but no one was home. He tried explaining, saying words slowly. Then he started waving his arms about like a madman. I was watching from another counter when I suddenly recognised one word. I speak a tiny bit of Spanish and he had used a word for "bird" in Italian that was close enough to Spanish for me to understand. He wasn't waving his arms about - he was flapping his wings!

I went over to him and I flapped my arms. I said my one Spanish word - "pajaro?" He almost hugged me he was so happy!

The other library staff were overjoyed and relieved. They handed him over to me and off we went to look whatever it was he wanted. I took him to the animal and bird book section. There were a lot of books. I held out a few, but he shook his head. Then he started to quack, like a duck. I had a clue and sorted through to find a specific selection. He handed back the books with no photo illustrations and acted out painting with a brush. Slowly I got to understand that he was an artist and wanted pictures of ducks to copy for his paintings.

We had such fun that day and we laughed so much. He taught me how much joy there can be finding other ways to communicate, as long as you remember to find delight and laughter in the experience.
He taught me that when you have to "talk" to someone who doesn't speak your language you need to first find the person you are talking to at soul level first. Find their eyes and their heart.. and be prepared to laugh at the joy of your own clumsiness.


  1. It's such a wonderful article. I really love it. You're a really nice girl.

  2. I'm GLAD you decided to write this into a post, M.

    THX for your encouragement and for sharing your story from the other point of view (my being the stranger here) he he he...

    My mother-in-law sometimes uses body language to explain something to me HE HE HE HE...BLESS HER HEART! I truly appreciate her effort in trying to "connect" with me even though we can't really communicate well. I long for the day when I can really talk to her later on.

    Yeah, learning to laugh at my own self has been TOUGH for me, but I think I'm slowly learning to get the hang of it he he he he...

    I LOVE this story of yours. It's REALLY enlightening for me. :-))))

  3. You write so well and with such warmth - it's truly a pleasure to read your postsxu

  4. Blur and Random
    Gee. :-) *BIG SMILE* You're going to make me big headed!

    Thank you. :-)

    The best luck (and a very "BT") is to have a nice mother-in-law. :-)

  5. Indeed, M, that's SO true!!! I'm SO lucky to have in-laws like them!!! ;-D

  6. Now you have an understanding of how I was communicating when I first went to Brazil! :D

  7. Great post! I am better from reading it.

  8. Epi.. my sympathy! Being in an entire country which does not speak your language must take enormous patience as well as humour to stay sane.

    Thanks :-)



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